Barbara’s New Boomerang: Form, Function, and Art at the Tinkham Veale Student Center
The other day, while strolling over from my office in Mather to Kelvin Smith Library, I noticed that where there used to be a neatly cut lawn, a massive boomerang of steel, glass and concrete had fallen from the sky. It’s the new Tinkham Veale Student Center, which had landed while my back was turned: a large, long and sleek two-story building; in the words of its architect Ralph Johnson–Principal and Design Director in the Chicago office of Perkins+Will — a “groundscraper.” Amazing in its own right, the building also promises to bring a sort of art to Cleveland that hasn’t been seen in this city before.
First, a bit about the building’s namesake, Tinkham Veale. A graduate in engineering from the Western Reserve University class of 1937, he supported his widowed mother and paid for his college career by working as a roustabout in the oil fields in his home state of Kansas. His business success came from buying small companies and partnering with the proprietors. His amazing success story provides a good model of the sorts of interactions and collaborations that the Veale Student Center has been designed to inspire.
Of course the Veale Center joins a virtual regiment of new buildings that lately have made University Circle a place that’s attracting national attention. What’s more, Case Western Reserve has four other major architectural projects in the works: The Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Art Center; the Wyant Field House; a proposed pedestrian bridge to the future West Campus; and a new medical school building, to be operated in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, which will be designed by the architectural superstar, Sir Norman Foster.
But perhaps none of these so neatly sums up the new character of University Circle as the Veale Center; and none so directly expresses the vision of Case Western Reserve’s president Barbara Snyder, who in a few years has transformed a money-losing operation with sagging enrollment to one which is growing in endowment and class size, gaining in diversity and cosmopolitan savoir faire, recruiting more gifted students, and setting bold and ambitious plans for the years ahead.
A new center for student activities has always stood at the center of Snyder’s vision of the place that Case Western Reserve must become. She wanted a lively meeting place, a center in which unpredictable collisions of people would spark new ideas, directions and visions for the future.
The placement of the building, in fact, provides a central part of its message, and is a bit of a shocker at first. It doesn’t stand apart from its surroundings, as if posing for a photograph, like so many pristine modern buildings. Instead, it’s squeezed somewhat incongruously in between other things. It stands at a crossroads: wherever you’re headed on campus you’re likely to bump into it. One might even compare its great prow of glass and steel to the bow of a titanic ocean liner plowing into a regatta.
Initially the university assumed that the building would sit on top of the garage that lies underneath the Freiberger playing field next to Kelvin Smith Library. But studies found that the garage was not engineered to support a three-story building. Even more to the point, they discovered that the water table is just ten to twelve feet below ground level, and that the garage itself is rather like a bathtub sitting in a body of water. As it is, water is pumped out of the garage daily: if the pumping stopped, it would fill with water fairly quickly. Poking holes through the garage to support a new student center would effectively transform the garage into an aquarium.
So it became apparent that the new building needed to wrap around Freiberger Field and the garage, and this became one of the major determinants of its shape. And in the end, this led to a much more unusual and interesting building, with shapes reminiscent of a Origami paper-fold: a boomerang, or perhaps a sort of three-armed starfish, with arms extending to the north, south, and west. Symbolically these arms link the building to the key sectors of the campus. They create unusual outdoor courtyards –open air “rooms” for student activities.
Architect Ralph Johnson once shaped a building to provide a pathway for migratory birds. This one is designed for migratory people. A central aspect of the building is its sense of flow. When it’s complete it will form a pathway across that central part of campus — particularly welcome in winter, when it will provide shelter, not unlike a New England covered bridge, from the harsh weather.
The center of the building is a monumental stair that looks out to Freiberger Field and a food court with four different venues for food service. The second level contains a multi-purpose meeting and event space, the largest in the university, about 7,000 square feet in size, which can accommodate 750 people in a lecture format.
The West Wing serves as a home for student organizations. There’s a nice bit of symbolism in the fact that the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transvestite Center (LGBTC) occupies the place of honor on the first floor; and that the Inamori Center of Ethics and Excellence occupies the place of honor on the second. In this way, the building puts acceptance of diversity and ethical behavior into architectural terms, at the heart of student life.
A decade or so ago, the Bauhaus approach of sleek, clean functional architecture seemed about to die from boredom, and Post-Modern architecture was the vogue: buildings were sprouting oddly shaped pediments, classical or Egyptian columns, and decorative details. But in the last a few years, a shift has occurred, as the Bauhaus style has gained a second life with new materials, technologies and sophistication.
Two such themes dominate the new building. One is transparency. The walls are mostly glass and one can see right through the space, from one end to another. Students like to see and be seen, so the transparency is not only an architectural choice but enhances the student experience.
The other is new technology, which is both a practical matter, and a theme associated with university’s brand. Because of new varieties of glass and insulation, it’s an exceptionally energy-efficient building which got a silver rating from LEED, the Green building council. A radiant heating and cooling system runs water and glycol in tubes through surfaces where it’s needed, rather than to the empty air above them. The grass on the roof will absorb rainwater and will also help reduce the “heat island” effect created by a concrete roof, which would retain heat from summer sunlight.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the building is the spaces that have been set aside for “art.” The most prominent is a two-story wall that stands across from the main entrance of the building. This will be used as a “media wall” using computer-generated imagery. Another large wall, lit by a clerestory, behind the main staircase, will provide a dramatic place for a large mural painting, or a piece of sculpture. Finally, the ceiling planes of the space outside the second floor lecture hall provide a canvas for a digital cloud of electroluminescent display created with light-emitting diode technology.
The artists and works have not yet been chosen, but four aspects of this new approach to the building’s art program give insight as to what might be in store. First is emphasis on new media. Up to this time, “Art” at Case Western Reserve has meant a painting or sculpture. In this new building, the place of honor goes to computer-generated imagery. None of the work quite fits into a traditional conception of painting or sculpture.
Second is the emphasis on communicating the university’s mission. The media wall, for example, obviously lends itself to showcasing the research and intellectual activities carried out at Case Western Reserve. Thus, it somewhat blurs the distinction between art, advertising, and “branding.” A central goal of the “art” is to create a sexy, dazzling, cutting-edge image for the university.
Third, making art for these spaces requires a new kind of artist, with different skills from those of most traditional artist. They require an artist who’s not just a craftsman with a brush or blowtorch, but a team-leader, who can bring together the talents of figures with sophisticated computer and technical skills. In short, the artist must be more like an architect, or a Hollywood film director than like a traditional craftsman.
Fourth, and perhaps most exciting, but also heart-wrenching, is the emphasis on the ephemeral. In the past university’s modeled their art programs on those of art museums, which are devoted to preserving works of art into perpetuity. But the technology used for media walls is constantly being updated; and one of the principal features of a media wall is that it can be changed instantly with the insertion of a new program. The art in the building will continue to be updated as times change. In fundamental ways this is a building and an art program that turns its back on the past and its sights forward on a brave new world.
Henry Adams is a professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University.