Science Experiment Sparks Architectural Debate
By Kate Antognini

The new science center has a lot of weight to carry on its sandstone shoulders. “[The center] is critically necessary to ensure…the entire College’s intellectual strength and academic excellence,” President Nancy Dye said in 1998.
But for all the millions spent on the construction of the building, its success is largely dependent on student whimsy. The College is crossing its fingers that Obies will throw Frisbees on the new lawn, crack books open in the library and chat in the commons.
Clearly none of this merrymaking is possible, however, if students think the building is an eyesore.
“[It] doesn’t fit in well with the buildings around it. It’s still nice, though,” first-year Jaeda Couhtino said, expressing a sentiment shared by some other students.
But exactly what kind of building “fits in” at Oberlin? A walk around Tappan Square offers a virtual slideshow history of the last 800 years in architecture, from the brawny Romanesque of Peters, to the cereal box aesthetics of Mudd, to the whitewashed neoclassicism of the Con.
In his brief history of Oberlin’s architecture, the late Professor Geoffrey Blodgett noted that the individualism prized so dearly by Oberlin has also produced a family of buildings which could be aptly termed dysfunctional.
“The College has regarded its physical past, distinct from its moral past, as something to be discarded and transcended,” Blodgett wrote in 1979. “Each building is often architecturally irrelevant to what had gone before or what [is to] come next.”
“The Science Center [adds] just another totally discordant note to our campus,” Professor of Architecture Andy Shanken said.
Some students remarked that the new building should have been modeled after Oberlin’s medievalesque structures, such as Severance and Peters.
“I really like Severance partly because of its [rough] stone and wooden floors,” sophomore Yepsen Rhodesey said.
But the ornamental facades and cut stonewalls that some crave are no
longer feasible, according to the architects of the Center.
“We couldn’t aspire to emulate that older era of architecture,” principal architect of the center Robert Schnaffer said. “[If we did] it would have ended up looking like a cartoon of those buildings. We just don’t have that kind of workmanship anymore.”
Schnaffer’s Boston-based firm, Payette Associates, crafted several models of the center in the late ’90s before the College made a choice. Many of these miniatures, detailed down to the streets, trees and pathways of north campus, show vastly different buildings than the one that stands today.
One discarded design features a lone tower above the commons; another has scattered turrets jutting out of the roof. The original blueprint envisioned the complex as a massive, fortress-like structure enclosing a central courtyard.
“I rejected [this plan] because it did not mesh with the campus,” president Dye said.
“It was too solid,” Schnaffer said. “Then it occurred to me to break up the facade with stone boxes separated by glass and steel. So now we have these little satellites.” He noted that from afar the Science Center resembles a “village” of buildings clustered as in a medieval town.
Shanken offers a quite different spin on it — “strip mall.”
“[The center] has this generic manner that has been incorporated into a lot of institutional buildings,” Shanken said.
Students were also polarized about individual features of the facade.
“The sandstone is a total failure,” senior Neil Freeman said, referring to the world famous Amherst sandstone (from an Ohio quarry) which gives a Finney finish to Payette’s signature crisp and modern style.
Few had kind words for the silver smokestacks rising above the roof, which filter out fumes from the many labs in the building.
“[They] remind me of a factory,” Rhodesey remarked.
In general, students and faculty were more enthusiastic about the interior of the building with its roomy lab and lecture spaces. Obies raved especially about the commons, a wall-less lounge off the library, which lights up at night as the brightest spot on campus.
A lot of the [College’s] energy has no place to go after dark. But the commons gives a sense of ‘there,’” Shanken said.
The commons and the library were both central to Oberlin’s goal: to bring the whole College into the science community. So far these efforts are bearing fruit. Night finds a flurry of sleep-deprived activity in both spaces. And massive science texts aren’t the only things students are reading. But some students criticized the flow inside of the building, bemoaning, for example, the steep steps between Wright and the East Wing.
“It’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. You don’t feel [like] you have any right moving between the two buildings,” Freeman said.
The New Science center is not alone in its mixed welcome; few of the College buildings erected in the last century have escaped ridicule. In 1974, Mudd was the butt of all jokes, at least among architecture students. This was before Obies discovered womb chairs and the world of A-level.
If history is any indication, students will, before long, happily tune into this latest “discordant note” on campus.

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