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Computing With Architecture

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If you want a real education in architecture, go to Carnegie Mellon, and not simply for the School of Architecture (where, yes, I am an adjunct faculty member). The university has just unveiled a new design for the Gates Center for Computer Science, an $88 million, 209,000-square-foot building (really two adjoining ones) funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is designed by the highly regarded Atlanta-based firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, working with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg. Building models released thus far show an adventurously angled and protuberant structure like a gigantic stack of puzzle pieces placed tightly in the ravine bounded by Cyert Hall, Hamburg Hall and the Purnell Center, just off Forbes Avenue near Morewood. On what is currently really a back-of-house site, a few deeply undistinguished buildings will fall to allow the Gates Center to rise, so no preservation debate is to be found here. Still, controversy brews.


Interestingly enough, the opinions on this exciting structure find their substance less in the bottom-line pro or con views than in the rationales that guide them. For instance, those who criticize the building on aesthetic grounds alone are just wrong. Sure, Henry Hornbostel designed the campus's best architecture in classically inspired forms covered in yellow and buff brick. But some of the worst architecture on campus uses the same forms and materials, albeit in dull and clumsy ways. Ralph Horgan, associate vice provost of campus design and facilities development, sums up: "A 21st-century department and a 21st-century university need a 21st-century building." He might also add my personal mantra: Not even Hornbostel did everything in yellow brick. One need only avoid a surface that is too dark.


And though this design is not complete, other MSME work is outstanding. The firm's Knowlton School of Architecture, at Ohio State, is opening to rave reviews, as did its Wang Student Center, at Wellesley College. CMU's computer-science-building committee researched and visited these and similar structures on 13 campuses. Guy Blelloch, associate dean for planning in computer science, called the Wellesley Student Center "the most impressive university building we've been in."   


Despite this reasonable and thorough process, some criticisms of the Gates Building design have real substance. Volker Hartkopf and Vivian Loftness, architecture professors and founding members of CMU's Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics, have been very critical of the building's design. They feel that its artistic aspirations will severely compromise its habitability, efficiency and longevity. A building designed for maximum energy efficiency should avoid irregular angles, cantilevers and large amounts of surface area, they say. And a complicated but inexpensive curtain wall increases the risk of maintenance problems and unforeseen construction costs. "The idiosyncratic nature of this ... is going to have an enormous effect on the cost," Loftness warns as part of a meticulous litany of criticisms. And the cost of this or any complex building is guaranteed to rise. Either that or its complexity will diminish through cost-cutting.


Guy Blelloch responds that his committee established as one of the building's goals a LEED Silver rating, a measure of environmental efficiency from the U.S. Green Building Council. No computer-science building at a prestigious competing university has such an achievement, Blelloch claims, and this structure may yet do even better. And the curtain-wall design isn't yet complete. Blelloch believes that many of Hartkopf and Loftness' proposals for efficient design would be too risky or expensive. They are "way out there on some of these issues."
   

 Who is right?  


If I were the client, I would keep Mack Scogin as architect, but I would insist on more ambitious building-performance goals both at the beginning of the process and throughout. The cost probably would have led to a smaller structure, but this current proposal is actually too big anyway. It needs to do a better job of creating courtyards and preserving views. Those lessons from Hornbostel are more important than any color.


The university, though, makes a compelling argument about the need for space, which is always at a huge premium on campus. Likewise, tellingly and appropriately, the School of Computer Science is happy. Says Blelloch of the architect, "I think they've achieved everything we've asked for and more."


Clearly, one lesson of this whole enterprise is that reasonable approaches can lead to profoundly different priorities in a construction project. Building a consensus is almost as difficult as building a real structure.

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