I’ve always told friends that if I were ever made president of this university, my first act would be to tear down and rebuild the Reiss Science Center.
Every school gets its token architectural blunder. Georgetown got Reiss. And Lauinger. And New South.
But Reiss is the least defensible. I’m not sure what’s worse – the 1960s honeycomb cement designs on the main entrance or the omission of windows from the north- and south-facing sides.
Lauinger goes so far as to use the crushed granite of Healy in attempting to produce a modern interpretation of its stately counterpart. The success of the project is in the eye of the beholder.
And Georgetown tried to do something about New South, petitioning the Commission of Fine Arts to approve a possible upgrade to the exterior design of the building in the early 1990s. The commission ruled that the building could not be changed, as it had become a permanent fixture of the Washington skyline.
Giving tours of Georgetown’s campus offers a crash course in contemporary architecture, as each building reflects the style of its time, for better or worse – the regal Copley and the futurist ICC, the federal Old North and the abstract Lauinger.
But Georgetown’s track record has improved of late. Recent and future campus additions aim to incorporate features of the existing, classic buildings without preserving the architectural flourish that will be off the runway next season. The Leavey Center incorporated the Dahlgren-facing windows of Healy Hall and each of the three buildings of the Southwest Quad live up to the school’s code without overdoing it.
The 10-year plan put forward by the university in 2000 broke with the outlines put forward by Georgetown throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Past plans called for buildings in the “podia” mode. Imagine four or five Leavey Centers stretching from Leavey to the Southwest Quad. Green space would be at the top of each building, and the high-density buildings would yield maximum space for multiple uses.
The university wisely abandoned that approach after Leavey, instead opting for a series of quadrangles that emphasized an affinity with the ground. Courtyards would replace elevated and artificial green space, and a series of buildings for specific uses prevailed over the airport-terminal style “podia.”
Last week the Advisory Neighborhood Commission signed off on the university’s latest construction plan, which includes the second phase of the Multi-Sport Facility and a new building for the business school. And the board wisely nixed plans for a flash marquee on Roy’s, the new performing arts center slated to open this year.
Now the multi-sport “complex” – not quite a field and not quite a stadium – will bridge the Southwest Quad to the new home of the McDonough School of Business. And the SB quad project will connect the adjacent sports complex to the Leavey Center with a series of grand staircases.
Georgetown has increasingly made wise use of every free acre of non-essential open space -mostly parking lots and the baseball field – to fashion a campus that looks good, and, more importantly, provides much needed facilities.
The look of the buildings isn’t ever that important; it’s what goes on inside that truly matters. But still, there’s something to be said for having a campus that reminds us that we’re somewhere distinct, somewhere special.
Georgetown’s most ambitious project in the coming years won’t be marked by architectural prowess but by fundraising ingenuity. The proposed science center, likely the most pressing academic need for the university, still sits in the pipeline because the funds aren’t at hand. Sexy sporting projects and the business school, well-endowed by financially successful alums, are further along financially.
So it seems that the Reiss demolition will have to wait.
After all, we need a reminder about what happens when the bricks-and-mortar projects don’t get the attention that they should.
Writer’s Note: Last week I incorrectly cited a lack of funds as the reason for The Georgetown Independent’s decision to seek Media Board funds in 1997. The Independent applied for university support in order to attract a larger potential talent source.