Berry Library Plans Need Rethinking

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 11/4/97 6:00am

Expansion has been the persistent theme of Dartmouth's history. Ever since the College's first major building project -- the construction of Dartmouth Hall in 1791 -- buildings have been added almost every decade. The school that used to hold classes in Eleazar Wheelock's log cabin now sprawls over hundreds of acres.

The Board of Trustees opened a new and radical chapter in the history of Dartmouth's growth in 1987, when they approved the controversial "North Campus Expansion" project, which calls for doubling the size of the library and adding a constellation of large, postmodern buildings around a quadrangle of grass north of Baker Library. In public statements and in pleas to alumni for money, the Trustees have taken pains to state that the project will preserve the character of the campus.

Now, 10 years after the Trustees approved the northward expansion, it seems the character of the entire Dartmouth campus could be jeopardized -- that is, if you believe the faculty and administrators on the Design Review Committee. At a special meeting with 60 professors yesterday, members of the committee denounced architect Robert Venturi's plans for the North Campus's most prodigious feature -- the 125,000-square-foot Berry Library addition to Baker, slated for groundbreaking this spring.

Members of the Design Review Committee say Venturi's plans will make Berry resemble a factory, and, indeed, Venturi himself has used the word "mill" to describe his vision for the building. Dartmouth Row, Baker Library and the neo-Georgian buildings on Main Street evoke the liberating reason of the Enlightenment; the Berry plans evoke the mechanism of mass production.

Is this the spirit the Trustees want the new building to convey? Probably not. But they approved Venturi's plans in June, in an effort to ensure that construction can begin in Spring of 1998. The Trustees want the groundbreaking to take place before College President James Freedman steps down next summer, and they hope the library will be completed during the lifetime of John Berry '44, the man who donated $27.5 million for its construction.

The Trustees should pause and reconsider the proposal. The Design Review Committee -- which includes several Art History professors and at least one professional architect -- has raised concerns that must be taken very seriously. A project as expensive, monumental and permanent as a $30-million library should proceed with extreme caution.

Expansion of the campus is a must. Baker Library is hopelessly inadequate, and several programs in the sciences and social sciences are threatened by obsolete facilities. Change is a tradition at Dartmouth; the character of the campus has always evolved, from the austerity of Wheelock's log cabin to the neo-georgian grandeur of Baker Library.

The Trustees eventually may decide Venturi's plans for Berry are appropriate to the postmodern style of the north campus already embodied in the Burke Chemistry laboratory, the Sudikoff Computing Center and the plans for the Moore Psychology building, now under construction. The architect's plans should not be rejected simply because they call for a building different from Dartmouth's signature buildings: the campus is a patchwork of different architectural styles, and great architecture is always distinct.

The Trustees hired Venturi to make something new and daring. Now they must reconsider whether Venturi's plans adequately express the liberation of a liberal education.