Adapting the Aesthetic
by Nicole Howley | published Oct. 1st, 2013
Students often harp about RIT’s brick overdose. On more than one, two or three occasions, RIT has been listed as one of the least beautiful or downright ugliest campuses around. Despite these ratings, the campus has visibly enjoyed a style update over the past few decades, flirting with a softer, more welcoming design while still staying true to its original brutalism and brick.
Maintaining the campus’s unified vibe across all nine colleges while accommodating adapting student need has been the responsibility of the Campus Aesthetics Committee (CAC). The CAC is made up of a variety of representatives from across the university. When colleges, student clubs or organizations or anyone else wants to make a change to RIT’s physical environment, they deliver the proposals to the CAC for approval. “In a lot of cases, they are often displays, banners, putting artwork in, that sort of thing,” explains Lydia Palmer, Director of Communications for Development and Alumni Relations and member of the CAC.
The team also looks over the plans for proposed buildings and renovations. But for the most part, they trust the committee’s leads – Jim Yarrington, director of campus planning, design and construction services, and Dr. James Waters, senior vice president for finance and administration – and Facilities Management Services (FMS) to produce the plans in accordance with campus style. “The FMS usually have a pretty good sense of what they have to get done and how to have it planned and designed,” affirmed Palmer. The team may look at the plans to assure that RIT’s overall aesthetic and RIT’s sustainability commitment has been taken into consideration.
However, far before 2008, when President Destler signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment , the committee had an alternate focus as well.
When the committee was first formed by Waters “the faculty members that he originally worked with were great advocates for RIT’s original brutalist design,” Palmer narrated. “They tended to be the 'no' guys.” Although their strict commitment to the original design may seem intense now, it might have been fueled by their appreciation of the brutalist style that actually won the campus the American Institute of Architects' Collaborative Achievement Award in 1972. But there was still a need for change.
“Over time, Dr. Waters added in a number of other people to bring a different perspective,” said Palmer. With the changes and committee members, the campus aesthetic began to shift from full-fledged brutalism to something much more student focused. “[Students] wanted softer spaces,” commented Palmer. “We wanted to make the environment on campus much more warm, welcoming, comfortable to the students.”
At this point, the CAC began playing a role in the changing physical nature of campus. Landscaping, trees, benches, study areas, meeting areas, food places all began popping up around campus. More members joined the CAC as well in order to form a well-rounded group perspective. “It’s not just a lot of people’s opinions.” According to Palmer, “We have a mix of visual arts people, business people, architectural people, and civil engineering people who all come together, each one with their own perspective for looking at it and then combine all those voices together.”
The current committee members still want to remain true to the original, angular style of RIT while adding a human-focused twist. “I think that the physically structures will always have a very clean, modern look to them … But they will adapt over time to being spaces that are less about the physical design of the building and more about how people are using it,” predicts Palmer.
With the recent and ongoing renovations in the Wallace Center as well as the changes in the College of Liberal Arts building, it seems like the team is on track to making this prediction come true. It’s a slow process – after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day – and not everything can be changed. As Palmer mentions, “You can’t just rip down the buildings and start over.” But the campus is changing. Slowly. And in accordance with student need.
“In the ten to eleven years I’ve been here, it’s a much nicer campus to walk around on,” Palmer muses. “Sometimes it will take two, three, five, ten years before you see a lot of the change that’s happened.” So you might not see too much more change within your time here, but when you come back for your 20 year reunion, you will be able to see the difference.