A Percent for the Arts

Expanding the arts into more areas of university teaching has been a trendy topic in recent years. A recent report by the College Board recommended “placing arts at the core of education” and “integrating arts across the curriculum,” in part to improve learning.

Many college and university leaders have taken the advice literally, making visual arts more prominent and visible on their physical campuses, too. Academic institutions are “critical environments to emphasize and instill the prominent role of art and culture,” explains Andrew Franz, AIA, principal of New York City-based Andrew Franz Architect, who is tracking the trend. “University campuses have the unique opportunity to impact a broad range of people from different backgrounds and cultures over many generations, establishing a foundation for the arts in society.”

In fact, campus architects, planners, and interior designers have never lost sight of this ideal. From the days of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia to new campus projects across the country, works of art play a central role in how designers create memorable places and spaces.

Integrating Existing Art
At Indiana University, for example, an existing 1930s-era campus theater building was designed to house historically significant murals by Thomas Hart Benton, an acclaimed regionalist painter from Missouri (see page 54). The painted works were restored in a controlled environment on site while the structure was renovated into the new IU Cinema and Theatre and Drama Center. Designed by MGA Partners of Philadelphia, the facility now houses a high-tech movie theater, performance spaces, and classrooms — while also preserving the building’s unique historic features and murals, according to the firm’s partner, Daniel Kelley, FAIA.

“The result has to be creating memorable places and spaces. Through expressions on a large scale of the campus, precinct, or building plan, to the more intimate scale of an interior or exterior room, we believe that architecture and art go hand in hand with master planning to create place on campus. These arts are linked — planning, design, and craft — in the best university environments,” says Kelley.

Such campus legacies are a vital part of institutional memory, Kelley notes. Yet today there are even more reasons to think about art’s supportive role. Part of the rationale is about keeping the campus exciting, innovative, and creative, says Claire Weisz, AIA, principal of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, New York: “We think design inspiration in spaces where students’ work and study is critical to a sense of what the college is about. I hear this all the time from parents and students evaluating various places where they are considering spending their college years.”

Art’s Positive Effect on Student Learning
Another reason is a growing body of evidence that art and artistic flourishes have a direct, positive effect on student learning, productivity, and even stress reduction. One Department of Education study followed more than 25,000 students over a decade and concluded that those “highly involved with the arts” score higher on standardized tests. Research on evidence-based design in university health facilities has yielded empirical proof that art can support well-being and recovery.

This suggests that the visual arts should touch more students by being available throughout the campus, say project teams — not just the lone, heroic bronze of the school’s founder in the quad. “The aggregation of small, strategically linked actions is, we have found, far more powerful than the single grand gesture,” says Barry Svigals, FAIA, a sculptor and architect who founded Svigals + Partners of New Haven, CT.

At Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, Svigals’ firm worked with Little Diversified last year to “weave art elements throughout” new residence halls. “Students entering the dormitories first see an engraved bluestone wall bearing inspirational text, along with wood-paneled walls depicting faces — an artistic interpretation of a student’s ‘inner and outer life,’ part of the University’s mission grounded in Jesuit philosophy,” says Julia McFadden, AIA, the project manager with Svigals + Partners.

Finding Room for Art
Just as at Fairfield University, more than ever artistic elements of new and renovated buildings are subtle, interspersed, and often found within special interior spaces of libraries, student centers, and classrooms. “Artwork is an essential focal point in interior environments and works to create a visually dynamic space,” says Melanie Conant, LEED-GA, NCIDQ, director of interior design for The Architectural Team, Chelsea, MA. “This can be achieved through water elements, graphics, sculpture, and more —  pieces we believe will promote tranquility, inspire ideas, and engage a community.”

A recent example at Bryn Mawr College is a modest yet powerful exhibit area created for the Department of Social Sciences in a historic laboratory building. The original third-floor chemistry labs were restored and adapted by MGA Partners for contemporary use, while the adjacent exhibit zone was created to house and display the college’s archives. With pleasant nooks for relaxing and studying, the facility does more than just stimulate the student’s mind: It reinforces leadership. When built, the Bryn Mawr director of facilities services, Glenn R. Smith, said the project “supports two key goals of the plan: enhancing the college’s ability to recruit and retain the most qualified students while fostering innovation without significant expansion.”

In fact, because art can serve as an unmistakable way to link a facility’s design concept to university strategy, artwork is more often seen as a successful investment in the campus setting. “Our goal is always to express the client’s mission through every detail of the project, from big to small,” says Svigals. “By seamlessly integrating art and sculpture into its architectural design, we can help inspire students while reinforcing specific goals established by the university.”

At Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT, the recently built Center for Science, Art, and Technology is a showplace for artwork, inside and out. Students are greeted by an 800-lb. bronze statue of St. Albert the Great, designed by Svigals, on their way to classrooms and labs through a new atrium area. (Leaning forward and with his robes caught in motion, the telamon appears to be walking, too.) Inside, a double-height wall graphic depicts Latin phrases in a classic typeface, and overhead a supergraphic of ancient-looking type surrounds the atrium. Scattered among the floor tiles are matching mosaics of symbolic shapes. This integration of lettering and imagery recalls the close integration of sculpture and messaging in neoclassical architectural ornament — a feature of many older college buildings.

Often, the most effective way to introduce art in campus buildings is by renovating and adapting existing architectural gems, says The Architectural Team’s Conant. “It’s surprising how often we see historic artwork and ornament covered up by more recent construction,” she says. “Restoration and adaptive-reuse projects benefit by reintroducing those gems, preserving them for future classes to enjoy.”

Adaptive Reuse With Modern Touches
At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, MGA Partners’ Kelley saw an opportunity to retain the school’s historic fabric and even enhance its original beauty in the full renovation of Linderman Library. Details originally built in 1877 were preserved while reorganizing interior spaces and adding a sophisticated technology infrastructure and climate control. Kelley oversaw the design and installation of new, custom light fixtures of glass and bronze throughout the library.

“Craft in architecture, such as in masonry or millwork, is the enduring evidence of human ingenuity and skill,” says Kelley.

While reviving the classical tradition of integrating art and architecture is important, so is the need for universities to adopt current ideas in art, which run the gamut from light technologies to video arrays and even “sound sculptures” or performance art, says the architect Franz.

“Whether through high-quality architecture like the Free University in Berlin by Foster & Partners or through art installations and performances, good design and art work as stimulators,” says Franz, “creating interest and interaction or an actual incubator of ideas by creating shared spaces, common meeting places, and landmarks.” 

Chris Sullivan is a writer and principal of C.C. Sullivan, a marketing communications company focused on the architecture and construction industries. Former chief editor of Architecture magazine, Chris contributes frequently to such magazines as Interior Design, SNAP, SmartPlanet.com, and Building Design + Construction.