Issue Commentary Back Next

by John Scofield

Wilder site for ESCtr better suited for an academic program

I am writing in response to an article entitled, "ENVS building site chosen," which appeared in the last issue of the Review. As a member of the Environmental Studies Program Committee (ESPC) this proclamation came as news to me. In its Sept. 18, 1995, meeting the ESPC reserved the right to make program decisions regarding the proposed Environmental Studies Center (ESCtr), guided by, but not restricted to, recommendations from the design charrettes.

Since reasons for the Harkness site have been presented I now present an argument for the alternate site on the corner of Woodland and Lorain Streets, "catty corner" from Wilder Hall. I refer to this as the Wilder site. (Others have called this the Woodland site.) I believe that this decision - the location of the ESCtr - is the single most important decision which will determine the future, both of the ESCtr and the Environmental Studies Program (ESP) which it will house. It is extremely important that the Oberlin community understand the issues which must be weighed in reaching this decision.

The proposed ESCtr will have many positive influences on the College and community, but all of these cannot justify the construction of a new college building if that building does not clearly meet long-standing, critical needs of the College. (I believe that the Stevenson is an example of a building which did not meet such criteria.) Properly designed and appropriately located, the proposed ESCtr will do just this and provide other positive influences on the campus and community.

What are these needs? In its most recent program review the three most critical needs identified for the Program were the need for its own space (i.e., a building), addition to staff and the need to increase the role of science. These problems have dogged the program for years and continue to do so. I believe that all must be eliminated to elevate the program from its secondary status (one full time faculty member with most courses borrowed from other departments) to a central place in the College curriculum.

What makes ES interdisciplinary is the need to understand the human and political dimensions of environmental problems along with the science and technology which both cause and solve the problems which face us. Scientists would be foolish to think that technology alone will solve our environmental problems. Similarly, humanists or social-scientists will make little progress towards solving these problems if they lack basic scientific understanding of the issues. Lorain Street splits our campus in half - scientists to the north (mostly) - others to the south. Ideally, the new ESCtr would be constructed on top of this road! The Wilder site is nearly such a location.

What are the curricular implications of the proposed ESCtr? The ESPC has identified three academic areas - possibly four - which will be connected with the new center; these are: 1) energy usage and generation, 2) ecological engineering, 3) landscape architecture and 4) global information systems (GIS). The ESPC is seeking an addition to staff in the area of geology/geography who ideally would include GIS in his or her research and teaching. All of these curricular areas have close connections with the sciences - physics, chemistry, biology and geology. The success of these curricular initiatives will require close collaboration with faculty in these departments - to offer courses, sponsor students and supervise the various building systems. Close proximity of the ESCtr to other academic departments will foster various collaborations, over time possibly leading to "friendly" re-allocation of faculty positions as the curriculum evolves. I believe that the Wilder site, near the academic center of campus, will promote such interaction. These collaborations are less likely to succeed in the Harkness site, and without them, will the proposed ESCtr be able to meet critical Program needs?

What about some of the other issues which have been cited by those choosing the Harkness site? Does the Harkness site have more sunlight? Probably, but I doubt that it is significantly more. If the architect or engineers find otherwise, any problems could be eliminated by setting the building back farther from Lorain Street - possibly requiring the purchase of the adjacent lot on Woodland. What about the problem of closing down Lorain Street during construction? This is a temporary problem which, while undesirable, is insignificant compared with the many years that the building will serve the college and community. I don't think that the College will allow this problem to keep it from ever building on this corner? What about the limited land surrounding the site for proposed landscaping? This, too, could be solved by expanding the site along woodland. Any existing house could be moved, rather than destroyed, possibly being used to add a student residential component to the project. And what about the noise and pollution of traffic on Rt. 511? This may be an acceptable price for the greatly increased visibility and accessibility of this site. Let's face it, for green architecture to really catch on it must be viable in the real world, the world of existing buildings and highways, not just selected sites with "acceptable" environs.

In considering the site for the proposed ESCtr we should not overlook the symbolism of its location. The Wilder site is pretty close to the center of campus - nearly midway between North and South dorms and between the Conservatory and Philips gymnasium - two poles of our campus. In contrast, the Harkness site is on the southern fringe of the campus and carries with it the symbolism of the dorm from which it derives its name. I believe that the Harkness site is better suited for an isolated conference center while the Wilder site is better suited for the home of an academic program. This institution must peer into the future and decide which site takes us in the desired direction.

[John Scofield is a Professor of Physics at Oberlin College.]

Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 16; March 1, 1996

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