Gothic Anaesthetics

[email protected]
Web Master

In a clammy apartment north of Delmar, a motley group of art students is organizing a minor revolt; they’re trying to prove to anyone who will pay attention that Washington University has a lively arts community. Jane Hipple, the energetic, bob-cut leader of the ten or twelve artist/agitators who call themselves SEEN, is trying to mobilize the group for its next big event: an exhibit of five to seven student artists at D-Zine Art Studio in the Loop. “Can I get someone to take care of the postcard?” she asks. “I guess I’m asking for a volunteer…” she adds after a pause, looking around until a young man mumbles something conveying assent.
SEEN is a small, under-funded operation, but it has big plans. As part of its effort to provide more exposure for the visual and performance art of Washington University students, it produces several annual shows on and off campus. Among other things on the bill for this year is “From Conception To Completion,” which will showcase student art projects as they evolve from sketches into finished works. As Erik Peterson, one of the group’s informal leaders explains, “There isn’t a space on campus for showing art, or for showing engineering projects, or for reading poetry, or any space that’s consistent.” SEEN, which was started three years ago by thirteen art school seniors, hopes to change that.
The group grew out of the frustration of students who sought more on-campus outlets for their work. “If you’re an art student, you’re only going to have two official shows-the CORE and the BFA show-in your four years here,” Peterson remarks, “and it’s not enough for most people who want to gain experience with a real audience.” Besides giving students a venue in which to display their work, though, SEEN also wants to bring artwork and innovation to a campus that is sorely lacking in both.
In fact, SEEN’s efforts are only one part of a larger student and faculty attempt to put a distinct mark on the campus. Here, bland facades and barren landscapes underscore the fact that the talents and imagination of Wash U’s students and faculty are being ignored. The architecture faculty, which includes Glenn Murcutt, the winner of the 2002 Pritzker Prize (architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize), has been entirely shut out of the process of conceiving and designing the buildings that will define the Washington University campus in the 21st century.

Similarly, the art school faculty, which includes a number of award-winning specialists in outdoor installations, design, and public art, has been denied a role in shaping the look of the campus. Instead faculty members have been putting their talents to work in downtown locations, University City, and other campuses across the country.
Although a grandiose project is supposedly in the works to unite the various buildings of the Art and Architecture Schools into a Visual Arts and Design Center, associate vice chancellor in charge of facilities Ralph Thaman said in a phone interview, “we haven’t even gotten past the fundraising stage.” One Washington University Architecture School alum said that opposition to the building’s modern design is the reason the project has been stalled. Meanwhile construction moves forward with the more traditional buildings for the Biomedical Engineering and Earth and Planetary Sciences departments.
The physical disconnect between the “East Campus” (the School of Art and Archeology and the School of Architecture) and the Hilltop Campus only exacerbates this problem. But if someone wanted to understand why the campus design at Wash U is stagnating, it would be enough to compare the people heading up campus planning at Wash U with those at a school undertaking more progressive projects, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The director of campus planning at M.I.T. is William Mitchell, who is helming a $500 million construction and renovation project that includes an “infinite corridor” linking the entire campus through underground passageways, a major new research center designed by Frank Gehry, and twelve other new buildings including a center for research on Artificial Intelligence and a state of the art Sports and Fitness Center. Mitchell himself is a superstar in his field: a professor of architecture, an author of highly influential books on design and the integration of technology with space. Most of all, he’s an artist with an innate sense of campus aesthetics who has a desire to incorporate the views and talents of his school into the campus. For example, one of the buildings in the new construction is being designed by M.I.T. architects.
Mitchell’s counterpart at Wash U is executive vice chancellor Richard Roloff, who, while an able administrator, has neither the academic background, nor the vision, nor the taste for campus aesthetics necessary for someone in his position. He may be the best man to realize the plans of the board of trustees, but under his leadership, the campus will never utilize advances in architectural design or capitalize on the creativity of the university’s students and faculty.
The fact that the art and architecture of the Wash U campus remains unadorned by the work of in-house talent, however, isn’t for lack of proposals and ideas from students and faculty. Ron Fondaw, professor of ceramics in the School of Art, currently directs one of the art school’s most innovative public art programs in conjunction with officials in University City. As part of a long-standing agreement, the fifteen to twenty students currently in Fondaw’s 3-D Design class will draft proposals for art installations to be placed in different locations around the Loop, and members of the U. City administration will then choose the seven to ten best proposals for funding and construction.
Each year, the project is a big success, and Fondaw says he has tried to channel some of this energy towards on-campus projects. He pointed out, however, that “One of the reasons that the University City thing works is that they are given a budget. The students actually get money from the city to build these things, so it’s not money out of their own pocket. The university has not come forward with that.”
In particular, he mentioned a project he had planned just last year with some students, aimed at brightening up the Field House wall that runs along Big Bend. The design he envisioned was a relief looking back at the origins of the Field House as the site of the 1904 Olympics. The project was to take old photographs of the Olympics from inside the Field House, model them in terra cotta relief, and place them along the wall in context with a brick, undulating wall complete with seating and a fountain.
Fondaw says that Richard Roloff was open to the idea, but showed no particular interest in helping realize the project. “I mean it’s an incredible amount of work and time, and they didn’t offer to even look at the work that we’d put into it,” Fondaw said. He and the students met several more times, and created preliminary plans for the relief, but when Roloff still showed no interest in assisting or seeking funding for the project, student interest waned and the project fell apart.
In 1996, Fondaw had a similar experience in a project he created with architect Steven Dekay. As part of the annual faculty exhibit that year, Fondaw and Dekay examined the campus’s design in order to identify “some visual sore spots on campus and to propose works of art or just better designed areas for those spots.” Fondaw explained that he and Dekay “were looking at smaller, sometimes overlooked things” like gateways, the lack of places for students to rest and gather as they traverse the long stretches from the quad to the field house. When the work finally went on display at Steinberg Hall, Fondaw said that Chancellor Wrighton “just kind of looked” at the proposals, “said ‘interesting’ and went on.”
A couple of years later, the School of Architecture organized a symposium on campus architecture, and some members of the faculty took the event as an opportunity to propose new ideas and designs. Adam Glaser, a visiting assistant professor at the time, came up with one of the most interesting projects. A long-standing need of the Department of Music, and in particular the vocal department, has been a performance hall, so Glaser had students in his third-year studio, in consultation with vocal students and professor of music Jolly Stewart, draft a series of proposals for a mid-capacity performance hall.
Eric Socolofsky (’99), who designed one of the theoretical proposals, was thrilled by the opportunity to imagine a part of the campus on which he lived, and thought that the student’s perspective brought a great deal of insight to the models. “Knowing the site on which you are designing leads you to a much fuller, deeper understanding of the conditions into which the building will be constructed and under which it will be used” he said. “My design arose from my understanding of the way students moved from the South 40 to the Hilltop, and the way music students used their campus.”
Professor Stewart says that the designs were “really fabulous.” Socolofsky described his own proposal, which he located adjacent to the main music building just behind the Elizabeth Danforth Butterfly Garden: “The main lobby space was enclosed entirely in translucent and transparent glass, and sat a short ways behind the row of trees along Forsyth. During a performance at night, the lobby would be lit and would glow from behind the trees as a partially shrouded lantern, inviting the audience through the trees and into the lobby.”
Stewart said that she hoped the designs “would pique the interest of the administration,” but despite petitions to the administration, and the publication of a provocative article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by classical music critic Sarah Bryan-Miller, there has been no further consideration of the need for a performance space.
One of the few people who has had a positive experience in trying to bring art to the campus is Professor Arnold Nadler, who specializes in outdoor sculptures. Last semester Nadler succeeded in pulling off a project to have students from his Outdoor Design Installation course set up four temporary sculptures throughout the Hilltop Campus (see top right). He said that though there were a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, the administration ultimately seemed amenable to the project, if not particularly enthusiastic.
“As artists we can’t expect a handout” he explained. “It would of course be great if the university decided to solicit art work from the student body and the faculty, and provided funding for projects, but it’s just not realistic.”
But Fondaw argues that it is. “There are several well-known annual outdoor sculpture competitions housed at other campuses” he mentioned, citing among others Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and University of Ohio (Wesleyan), where artists from those schools and others are solicited and given funding for projects to beautify the campus. Fondaw added, “I think it’s this sense that the larger administration has a ‘master plan,’ and that these projects coming in from the various schools of art and architecture just don’t line up with it.”

Leave a Reply