Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Alan B. Miller Hall, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA

Architect: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York, NY; Robert A.M. Stern, senior partner; Graham S. Wyatt, AIA, and Kevin Smith, AIA, partners. Landscape Architect: Ann P. Stokes Landscape Architects, LLC, Norfolk, VA

LEED: Gold certification

 

 

Awards

New Design & Construction – more than 30,000 sq.ft.

Winner: Robert A.M. Stern Architects

History Lessons

By Nancy A. Ruhling

The campus of the College of William & Mary, America's second-oldest seat of higher learning, is defined by its distinctive red-brick Colonial buildings that speak to the country's storied lineage and history. So when the 1693 college decided to erect a new building for its business school, it wanted to design one that would complement its old-school style yet address the new-world view of students and faculty who work in a high-tech, global environment.

Alan B. Miller Hall, the new home of the Mason School of Business, designed by Manhattan-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects, brings the past up to date in a beautiful, functional and sustainable manner. The $53-million project, which had been in the works for a decade, is a significant architectural and academic addition to the campus. At more than 161,000 gross square feet, it is the school's second largest building and is substantially larger than the campus' iconic Sir Christopher Wren Building, which as the oldest college building in the country and the oldest restored public building in Williamsburg, VA, defines the image of not only the esteemed educational institution but also of the city itself.

To assure that it fit perfectly into the campus, the Stern team studied 19 sites and evaluated them analytically before choosing to place the business school at the western end of the campus, directly opposite the Sir Christopher Wren Building and away from the core of historic red brick buildings that were added in the 1920s and 1930s. "It successfully bookends, if you will, the Wren Building," says the firm's founder and senior partner Robert A.M. Stern, adding that a zone of mediocre 1960s academic buildings stand between it and the historic campus. "The Wren Building opens toward the town of Williamsburg and faces east. Our building, which faces toward the landscape, is the campus' gateway to the West."

Using the rich vocabulary of the Classical language spoken by Colonial architecture, the Stern firm chose a 21st-century dialect to create what Stern calls "a serious, scholarly, imaginative interpretation of the William & Mary tradition, proportion and scale for a very special site." The hall's placement was not unprecedented. "There are schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where the business school is actually quite remote from the historic center," says architect Graham Wyatt, AIA, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Stern and his team used the Sir Christopher Wren Building, which according to tradition was designed by the great English architect who erected St. Paul's Cathedral in London, as a stylistic guide for the U-shaped, Classical-style slate-roofed, red brick and pre-cast stone building. "We tried to echo Wren's building although our building is much bigger and the Colonial style offers no models of such a scale," says Stern. "We used it as a model for the centerpiece of our building."

To put things in perspective, and to put Miller Hall in its proper place, the building was positioned to present a narrow face to the street and center of campus, and its wings were stepped in and out to decrease their apparent length. Landscaping, too, was designed to tuck the building into the site and out of sight. "It engages the street and only reveals its size when you walk around it," says architect Kevin Smith, AIA, also a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

The central thesis of Stern's architectural plan was to link the new building to the Colonial tradition of the old, so instead of replicating the 1920s brickwork, the architects chose a varied complementary colorway.

"The center of the building, the main pavilion, is an echo of Wren's architecture but not a copy of it because Wren was working in a tradition, and we're working in a tradition, so we developed proportions to articulate the façade, and then we added a cupola on the top, which is in the tradition of the campus," says Stern. "We have wonderfully thought-through details in wood and stone and, of course, brick. The building is very welcoming and it is distinctly a William & Mary building. That was the object."

If the historical-design style took care of the past, the space allocation more than covered present needs. The student body is divided equally among graduate and undergraduate students, and a wing is devoted to each group. "Our planning was driven by the idea of two schools within a school," says Wyatt. "The overall idea was to create a relaxed, collegial space that works 24/7 and that would encourage people to study on site and to collaborate with each other."

The experience starts at the front door, which opens into a central triple-height atrium designed for large receptions as well as day-to-day casual interaction. "Everyone from the dean and the lead donor on down was clear that they wanted a 'wow' factor right from the start," Wyatt says. The admissions and career placement offices were situated front and center to create a strong first impression on students and job recruiters. A café, which includes an outdoor terrace, also was given prominent placement.

The central atrium leads to a student lounge, or what the Stern team refers to as a "living room." "It has three parts," says Wyatt, "one for grad students, one for undergrads and a central portion that they share. It has a relaxed feel – there are sofas and coffee tables. It invites people in yet it has a certain gravitas."

The living room looks out over a half-acre courtyard that has a grassy space large enough to accommodate a tent for graduation. Beyond that, a quadrangle opens to the College Woods and a renovated amphitheater in a scenario that is reminiscent of the Sunken Garden, the hedge-lined, Thomas Jefferson-designed lawn around which the historic section of the campus is organized.

"Nothing in the plan of the building is arbitrary," Wyatt says. "We came up with a floor plan that worked for the Mason School's culture and program." The second floor, which is reached via a central stairway that continues to the third floor, houses a library on the central axis, a dean's suite, and a double-height multipurpose room that opens to the central atrium. The third floor is reserved for faculty offices, which are grouped in clusters to foster communication, and conference rooms. "From an architectural view, the building really supports the mission of the business school," Smith says. "Students, faculty and staff have to come in at the same entrance, so they have the same experience of this rich spatial sequence."

The arrangement of the spaces also served to break down the large scale of the building. The plan works well, Stern says, because the building "is made of three significant components. One, the central atrium, is grander and is at the center, and the other two, the wings, are more low-key. Each side opens to a garden court."

The style and spirit of the exterior was carried over to the interior through Classical detailing that includes Classical columns and well-proportioned motifs in the skylight. "As you move down the corridors, and you get more to the classrooms and the faculty offices, the detailing is necessarily tamped down, but that's as it should be," Stern says.

Early on in the planning, it was decided that the business school building would be green. Although the original goal was to apply for Silver LEED certification, the building attained the Gold designation. "We're very proud of that," Wyatt says. "It made sense economically and environmentally to do this. It's important in another way because it shows that LEED certification has nothing to do with style and can be successfully accomplished in buildings that are not contemporary glass and steel."

In fact, Smith adds, the Colonial style has many features, including natural daylighting, thick insulating walls and natural air circulation that are intrinsically sustainable.

In the case of the business school, a host of 21st-century elements, namely increased insulation, high-performance heating and cooling systems and sensors that turn off or dim lights when it's sunny or the space is unoccupied, were built in. "Educational institutions were one of the early adopters of LEED certification, and even though this was not the first building at William & Mary to be sustainable, it is the most significant," Smith says.

Stern sees the William & Mary business school as a continuation of the work he and his firm have been engaged in throughout his career. "I don't think we intended for the building to be unique," he says. "It's part of a search that I have been working on with my colleagues for 30, 40 years to make wonderful buildings and to show that the language of architecture didn't die in 1922, that it goes forward. This building is specific to the site, it's specific to the program. It's specific to the conditions that enable us to build buildings in the early years of the 21st century. But it's not unique in the way many campuses have buildings that look like nothing you've ever seen before. So you could say it's unique because it isn't unique." The building works, he adds, "because it's appropriate for the campus, but also no shortcuts were taken."

Miller Hall was designed with an eye on the future, and its placement and prescient architectural design allow for room to grow. "It's built for a long lifespan," Smith says. "We see it standing for 200 years. Sure, we'd love it if people say that it's such an award-winning building that they can't alter anything, but in fact we've designed it to accommodate change. Fifty years down the road, the building will have logic and integrity and will be adaptable to have uses that we cannot imagine."

 

 

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