Best New Building

Sarah Lawrence's Monika A. and Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Visual Arts Center was designed with a reverance for the college landscape and a keen respect for the environment.



Best New Building

 

Monika A. and Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Visual Arts Center Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, Westchester County Susan T. Rodriguez, of Polshek Partnership Architects in Manhattan, gave this writer an assignment: find and study the book Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudolfsky. It turned out to be a scavenger hunt of sorts, ultimately leading to the stacks at the main branch of the New York Public Library.

 

The occasion of Rodriguez’s challenge was the completion of the Monika A. and Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Visual Arts Center at Sarah Lawrence College. Polshek was the respected team chosen nearly three years ago to design the center, with Rodriguez as lead architect on the project. (Other notable Polshek buildings include the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History and the stunning new glass facade of the Brooklyn Museum.)

 

But about the book. Published in 1964 as a companion to a groundbreaking exhibit on architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, it turns out to be a window into the mindset of Polshek Partnerships’ work. Struggling to come up with a term to define his vision of architecture, Rudolfsky writes that it should be “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous” — in­stinctive, even. And in a passage that’s directly applicable to the Heimbold Center, he notes: “The untutored builders in space and time...demonstrate an admirable talent for fitting their buildings into the natural surroundings. Instead of trying to ‘conquer’ nature, as we do, they welcome the vagaries of climate and the challenge of topography.”

 

Of course, other influences were at play in the design of the Heimbold Center, which opened last month. These include the Bauhaus, with its emphasis on industrial elements, and the sinuous paintings of Fernand Léger. But it’s the sense (à la Rudolfsky) that the structure belongs here — and nowhere else — that makes it special. It’s what Rodriguez herself calls “a unique building on a unique campus.”

 

It’s unique on several levels. For one thing, the light-filled, 61,000-square-foot center is a “green” building, meaning that Sarah Lawrence met — and, in most cases, surpassed — state and federal environmental guidelines, including those for ventilation (it will use 20 percent less energy than comparably sized traditional buildings), heating (it relies on eight underground geothermal wells), use of local building materials (much of the facade comes from rock quarried to create the foundation), and reuse of construction waste (all but 100 of the project’s 16,000 tons of waste was recycled). The impetus for all of this came from alumna Josie Merck, who offered a $1 million challenge grant for the creation of an environmentally state-of-the-art building, a rarity in an arts facility, with its profusion of hazardous chemicals.

 

“We built it smarter,” says Michael Rengers, the college’s director of operations and facilities. “We’re challenging the term ‘green,’ pushing it as far as we can.” For its energy-saving efforts, the building won a silver designation, the second highest award, from the U.S. Green Building Council.

 

The center is also unique in its ability to blend into a campus dominated by older, primarily Tudor-style buildings. To diminish its visibility, it was sited on a hill, with its first floor partially underground. Its roof contains a terrace that will be planted with grasses, while all of its exterior building materials — stone, wood, zinc, and glass — are natural.

 

The Heimbold Center is a long-awaited addition to the campus. “The need for a visual arts center had been identified here for 10 or 15 years,” admits Rengers. Although the college has long been re­nowned for its arts curricula, its classrooms were scattered among four sites. Some credit construction of the new building on faculty insistence; others say it wouldn’t have been built without the support of the college’s president, Michele Tolela Myers, who hopes the center “will reflect a new vision for the way the arts are taught.”

 

“Certainly the building by design is absolutely reflective of what’s going on in the arts today,” agrees Rengers.

 

For example, take the current trend toward merging visual arts disciplines. Now that they are all under one roof at Sarah Lawrence, there will be what Ursula Schneider, chair of the visual arts department, calls “more of a sense of community, promoting (we hope) an exchange among students.” In other words, it will be a place where printmakers can enhance their works with computers, and filmmakers can interact with painters.

 

When it comes to the building’s many features, Schneider has two favorites. One is the two-story atrium encountered by the visitor upon entry. “It’s a tall, open space with light from above,” she says. “It’s absolutely fantastic.” (Large windows throughout the center allow natural light to reach all floors.) The other is the fact that the building was designed to be “part of the flow of the campus.” Students will travel through the center on their way to other buildings, making the visual arts a natural, integral part of their daily lives. (Again, echoes of Architecture Without Architects.)

 

Among the buildings’ offerings are rooms devoted to printmaking, papermaking, photography, sculpture, and new media, and shops for metalworking, woodworking, and ceramics. There’s also state-of-the-art space for budding filmmakers and animators, a 200-seat theater, an arts library, student exhibition space in the atrium, and a larger exhibition gallery made possible by a $1 million grant from TV journalist — and Sarah Lawrence alum — Barbara Walters. (Other big-name supporters of the center include Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, another alum.)

 

Joe Forte is a longtime art history professor at the college who served as a faculty consultant on the project. He’s thrilled with the results, although he admits he had to be won over after initial doubts.

 

“Polshek did a first-rate job,” he says. “Putting a building that size on that site had to be one of the most difficult things we could have done. I have to say I didn’t think they could do it.” Yet he declares the result “luminescent.”

 

“I had first choice of offices in the building,” he adds. “They offered me a corner office. I said, ‘If I took this office in the corner, I wouldn’t pay attention to anybody. I’d just pay attention to the light.’ ”

 — Barbara Hall

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