Text description provided by the architects. Students at Smith College—the largest liberal arts institution for women in the country—are assigned to houses, many of them Victorian-era structures complete with living rooms. Meant to foster a collegial environment, while successful, they also create isolated communities. Broadening the opportunity for social interaction, the Smith College Campus Center serves as a mediating body, the only building at Smith available to all students, faculty, and staff.
Serving as a junction between residential spaces and academic buildings, the sixty-thousand-square-foot campus center is imagined as an elaboration of an en-route passage through campus. Defined by the interconnecting contours of frequently traveled pathways into and out of the college and constricted on two sides by existing structures, the building is oriented as a pathway: one end opening toward the community of Northampton and the other onto the campus. The design clarifies Chapin Lawn, an expansive oval feature of Frederick Law Olmsted’s original site plan that had never been fully realized. By redefining this important element, the center establishes a prominent new setting for the 136-year-old school’s historic structures.
The longitudinal expanse of the building’s exterior is clad in a white-stained wood panel system reminiscent of board-and-batten construction and akin to the white clapboard construction of many Northampton buildings. Articulated by a seemingly random sequence of battens, the wood cladding activates the planar surface and weatherproofs the building with an innovative rainscreen assembly comprised of wood, plywood, steel, and insulation. The small apertures facing Elm Street, which faces the town, are subtle inclusions within a subdued facade, while the bold and expansive glazing on the campus side opens onto terraced steps that lead to Chapin Lawn. The broad steps provide the college with a central location for honorific events, including commencement ceremonies.
Inside, the lounges, exhibition areas, performance and dining facilities, student offices, mailrooms, and bookstore converge at a long atrium gallery, where light from above penetrates through the three levels to activate the core of the building. Expansive stairways open sightlines vertically throughout the interior and a bold color palette accentuates walls, carpeting, and custom furniture designed by Weiss/Manfredi.
Easily adaptable to different configurations, the furniture encourages occupants to inhabit and take ownership of the building. Throughout the atrium and in the dining hall, two related sets of café tables populate the space. A fragment of a highly chromatic botanical image printed on acetate is suspended within the cast-resin tabletops; when arranged together, the tables complete the botanical image. In the student lounge and throughout the building, lounge chairs offer restful places for reading or conversation; each is created from a single sheet of bent aluminum that allows the chairs to be gently rocked. With its welcoming furniture and pathway orientation, the campus center closes the physical and social gap between residential and institutional buildings, creating a communal living room for the college.