When Venturi Meets Webster

by Matthew D. Benedetto | 11/14/97 6:00am

It is with great dismay that I envision both the architectural and symbolic presence of the new Berry Library designed by Robert Venturi. Though I feel that its symbolic essence as the first monument of a controversial transition in this College's philosophy is the true impediment in this discussion, I will relay brief comments on its architectural meaning to me. Dartmouth College prides itself on valuing the individual: the individual's right to find pleasure and meaning in learning, the individual's right to find pleasure in his surroundings, and the individual's right to find meaning in himself. We students do not all find the same meaning, and we do not all emerge from Dartmouth as the same person. We find pleasure in discovering our different meanings. What Venturi's monolithic structure invokes, though, in his own words, is distinctly the philosophy and aesthetics of the "mill." Such an invocation is antipathetic to the values of Dartmouth. Whereas a mill effaces the individuality of its workers, Dartmouth revels in the individuality of its students; whereas a mill seeks mass production, Dartmouth values personal and creative achievement. We do not go to a library to be mass-produced; we go to a library to find ourselves.

Though Venturi's current design is architecturally problematic, I wish to focus the rest of my comments on its symbolic meaning. It is incumbent to aver that this building does not exist in isolation. This building is only the first in a North Campus expansion that is quite distinct from --and, in my opinion, hostile to --the remainder and the heart of this campus. Venturi's library is a barrier not only between the North and the South Campus, but also between two visions of this institution.

I chose to come to Dartmouth because this campus made me feel comfortable from the moment I stepped onto the green. Its rural, friendly and charming architecture speaks to a larger sense of what this College means to me. However, this sense is contrary to what is evoked by the dehumanizing, impersonal and streamlined effects of Venturi's library, which suggests an urban research facility. It will become the keystone of a North Campus expansion that is similarly post-modern, severe and all-encompassing.

We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that Venturi's library will exist in a vacuum. Rather, his building will set the tone for the new "North Campus." That is not the Dartmouth I chose to attend, and it is not the Dartmouth that I wish to return to in 25 years. I accept, of course, that this college must expand both spatially and intellectually; however, the prominence and the ego of the architect should not be played out in that expansion at the expense of Dartmouth College. Codified within this debate is a true anxiety as to the direction that this institution will take in the next millennium. We owe, I believe, the Dartmouth of the future the same intangible wonder and transcendent charm that drew all of us here at this moment in time.

Daniel Webster, in describing Dartmouth College in a Supreme Court argument before Chief Justice John Marshall, noted, "It is a small college, and yet there are those who love it." Naturally, Dartmouth College cannot afford to be reactionary in seeking to maintain a philosophically "small" College. However, Dartmouth College's progression into the next millennium, as symbolized by its architecture, should not offend all of our greater sensibilities. When those of us who love this College can honestly and sincerely say that we hate this building, it should provoke the greater community into at least a state of contemplation. This debate is not merely a matter of aesthetics; it speaks to our sensitivity and our sensibility as members of this school and community.

Robert Venturi's plan, as it stands now, threatens not only our sensibilities, but also our essence as Dartmouth College.