Berry Library: Dartmouth Community Should Have Been Consulted Sooner

by Dave Gacioch | 11/25/97 6:00am

I don't think that we have a problem of process; I think we have a problem of result." With those words, Provost James Wright closed the public meeting convened in Cook Auditorium on November 12th to address concerns raised about the design of the new Berry addition to Baker Library. It's a good thing that Provost Wright at least acknowledged the problem with the result of the Berry design, or else he might have been attacked by an angry mob of faculty members convened there to express their support for or concerns about the design submitted by architect Robert Venturi.

While I, for one, agree that there was indeed a "problem of result" in this case, I think it wise for me to leave that critique to the more knowledgeable judgment of Art History Professor Joy Kenseth, who led the faculty's protest about the Berry design, or at least to the more eloquent pen of Matt Benedetto '00, who has written and spoken frequently on this topic over the past few weeks. I, however, would like to take issue with the first part of Provost Wright's statement that no "problem of process" existed.

When leaders of the student body and of the faculty petitioned that bastion of democratic accountability, the Board of Trustees, two weeks ago to delay construction of the Berry addition until modifications to the structural design could be considered, the Board flippantly responded that it liked the design and, in any case, the whole process had come to far to bring to a halt, or even a temporary standstill.

That the process had come so far before the majority of the Dartmouth Community -- students and faculty -- had been shown the design and given a chance to give feedback on it, speaks directly to the obvious problem of process which Provost Wright failed to notice or acknowledge.

Back in May, when the decision was made to add an academic wing to the planned library addition -- bringing the frontal length of the entire structure to 290 feet (a scant 10 yards shy of the length of the football field) -- the plans were brought back before the Design Review Committee for its approval. The Committee, made up of faculty members with training and expertise in art and architecture, expressed serious concerns about the sheer size of the planned structure. In response to these concerns, the Venturi firm made a few cosmetic changes (a window or two) and the College carried on with the planning. After a review of the revised plans in August, a skeleton Design Review Committee (with several members not present) reiterated the concerns expressed in May, but those concerns seemed to fall upon deaf ears.

Then, in late October, the faculty and student body finally got wind of what was in the works for the area behind Baker and responded predictably -- objecting loudly to the "mill" which Venturi and company had designed as the vanguard of Dartmouth's North Campus expansion, and which the administration had kept so quiet to that point.

After more than a week of outcry from the faculty and the student body, Provost Wright finally decided to call a town meeting at which the plans could be presented by the architects who created them and community questions and concerns could be addressed. Having attended this session in Cook, I can affirm that it was very informative and quite exciting. The Berry addition is truly, as the architects said, going to be the "library of the 21st century" with stack space to relieve the over-crowded Baker as well as multi-media resources which will turn our sister institutions green with envy. While I and many of the community members gathered there expressed their distaste with the outside of the structure, everyone involved -- architects, community, Provost and all -- learned a good deal more about the issue. Then, I ask, why did we wait so long?

The Cook meeting could have happened in May. It certainly could have happened in late September or early October, when the concerns of the community might have received due consideration by the architects. Why does the College insist on withholding information from the community until the last possible minute? Even the alumni, those who fund all of our grand constructions, were kept in the dark on this one. If the College realized that the plans needed to remain hush-hush lest they incite, as they did, a groundswell of student and faculty protest, shouldn't that have convinced someone that maybe the design wasn't quite as good as it was thought to be? If the Venturi design was and is really as wonderful as the Trustees seem to think it is, wouldn't it make sense that they would have proudly announced the designs to the public as early as they could? Something here doesn't make sense. If the College administration felt the need to hide the design of its $50 million (yes, that's $50,000,000) piece de resistance from the public eye, one might hint that maybe those $50 million weren't being soundly invested.

Regardless, though, of my opinion of the current design, I think that we need to scrutinize a process by which such major steps as this construction can be taken despite the protest of the faculty and the student body. After all, we're supposed to be SOLVING a problem by sending the bulldozers after Bradley, Gerry, and Kiewit. After spending $50 million, I would hope that the Berry Library won't, in 25 years, fill the shoes of its "shower-tower" predecessors as the building the tourguides DON'T want you to see.