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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Anachronism and imagination are mutually exclusive: a social and architectural criticism of the proposed new dormitories

<ember 6, 1915, The Carletonia, as this paper was then known, reported: “The work on the girl’s [sic] new dormitory, which is the first building of the proposed women’s quadrangle is well under way...” As construction progressed on what would later become Nourse Hall, Carleton’s student newspaper provided ongoing updates about the building’s design, noting the new dormitory’s similarities to the men’s dormitory (Burton Hall) constructed only a year before. An article entitled “Work Progressing on New Dormitory” from the March 20, 1917 issue of The Carletonia provided the most complete description of the facility to date: “It will be a four-story structure, of fireproof construction, with red brick facing trimmed with Bedford stone, and will accommodate nearly seventy-five girls.” Today, ninety-three years after the groundbreaking for Nourse Hall, Carleton is similarly celebrating the commencement of a residential building project for the campus’s east side. The absence of disparaging, gendered language from The Carletonian’s January 18, 2008 article “New dorms projected for 2009-2010” does little to allay my concerns, however, about today’s proposed new dormitories’ stunning lack of imagination in design and appalling disregard for both their physical and social contexts.

If this brief examination of quotations from The Carletonian archives about the planning and construction of Nourse Hall elucidates anything, it is this—the Carleton of 1917 is a vastly different place from the Carleton of today. Whereas the Carleton of yesterday expected women to inhabit physical spaces subservient to those on the grandly scaled west side of campus, the Carleton of today is slowly but hopefully moving toward implementing housing policies blind to the gender of dormitory residents. Whereas the Carleton of yesterday was content to serve a student body that lacked students of color, the Carleton of today purports to offer educational opportunities to students of all national, racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Whereas the Carleton of yesterday was content to emulate the images of other universities through its adoption of Tudor Gothic Revival architecture (such as that found in Nourse), the Carleton of today asserts its creativity, independence, and preeminence through its adoption of quality, contemporary design. Or so I thought.

As currently designed by LHB of Minneapolis, the two proposed dormitory buildings intended to enclose the mini bald spot embody flawed stylistic ideals, while poorly responding to the building site’s unique challenges. Each building, through its punctilious repetition of façade elements from Nourse, presents an oppressive image of homogeneity better suited to a campus whose architecture is cohesive (like St. Olaf). In addition, by choosing to have their designs parrot features from only one of the site’s many adjoining buildings, the architects at LHB appear to reject the notion of contextualism in architecture. (Whether one loves or despises the LDC, one must admit that its exterior appropriately embraces and alludes to both the designs of Nourse and Myers.) Perhaps the presence of two buildings designed by the internationally renowned Modern architect Minoru Yamasaki to the southeast of their proposed buildings intimidated the architects at LHB into anachronistic thinking that fails to acknowledge either Cowling Gymnasium or Watson Hall.

Whatever their reasons for failing to design facilities appropriate to our time, LHB architects should work quickly to correct some of the most egregious failings of their proposed dorms. During the information session with architects from LHB on January 17, a student expressed concern that the proposed buildings lack appropriate connectivity with Watson Hall. As currently designed, neither building has an entrance facing toward 1st Street, which senselessly isolates residents of Watson from residents of the proposed new buildings and vice versa. Other concerns students voiced included the following: single rooms are smaller than those elsewhere on campus, brick facing material from North Carolina has an unacceptably high embedded energy cost, and each building’s utterly conventional floor plans likely will not meet the needs of Carleton students 100 years from today.

In the absence of a large-scale student outcry demanding quality contemporary design for new dormitory construction, Carleton will likely proceed with building LHB’s dormitories in a form quite similar to that pictured in the last issue of The Carletonian. Though such a turn of events will likely prove dishearteningly conservative to future generations of Carls, there is at least one comforting aspect to the new designs. The Carletonian can simply peruse its archives to find an adequate description of an LHB building: “It will be a four-story structure, of fireproof construction, with red brick facing trimmed with Bedford stone, and will accommodate nearly seventy-five…”.

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