‘Clark-itecture’ brought to life through course, student exhibit

Jonas Clark Hall circa 1903.

The buildings at Clark University tell stories that are steeped in history, touched by drama and even contain a dash of surprise.

Did you know, for instance, that the gothic buildings framing the campus green on three sides were at one time meant to be joined by a fourth building that would have sealed off the university, fortress-like, from Main Street?

Or that the Mohawk Trail purportedly traces through the Goddard Library, which is why the infamous (and now glassed-in) “wind tunnel” was created — so that the trail would remain open?

Perhaps you’ve heard that James Taylor once strummed his guitar in Little Commons?

Kristina Wilson, associate professor of art history, is directing her students to uncover the fascinating history of some of Clark’s most distinctive structures for her course, “Special Topics in Modern Art: Architecture on the Clark Campus.” The culminating project requires the students to produce polished 3,000-word essays on individual buildings, and their writings will be published in a 64-page booklet. In the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration, Wilson’s fellow professors from the Department of Visual and Performing Arts are enlisting their students to create drawings, photographs, videos, dramatic scenes, and music compositions that offer personalized interpretations of the campus’ signature buildings.

Their collected works, along with archival materials, will be on display in a spring 2012 exhibition titled “The Life of a Campus: Clark Buildings Then and Now.” During the exhibition’s run, “salon” evenings will be staged for the Clark community, alumni, and the general public. At these events, students will perform music pieces and give dramatic readings — all of them original works inspired by the social interactions that the campus architecture makes possible.

Wilson herself was inspired to pursue the architecture project when she learned that in 1967 the American Institute of Architects had given Clark an Honor Award for Fuller Quadrangle, which was designed by The Architects’ Collaborative. The spring exhibition celebrates the 45th anniversary of the award.

Her students delved into the University Archives to research Clark architecture, which Wilson breaks down into three historical periods.

The 1925 plan depicts the Clark green enclosed by buildings.

The first period lies between the University’s founding in 1887 and World War II. During this phase, the flagship Clark Hall was constructed, as well as the Jefferson and Geography buildings, which showcased the popular gothic style popular at the time. The towering structures were favored on campuses across America because they spoke of gravitas, history and longevity, and lent any college what Wilson calls “insta-heritage.” A plan from 1925 depicts Clark’s green ringed by imposing stone and brick structures; its most disarming element is the brooding building (never built) that cuts off Main Street from the campus. “This was Clark looking inward; asserting its preciousness,” Wilson says.

The second phase occurred in the post-World War II years as Clark shifted its emphasis from being a commuter school to residential university. During this period, Fuller and Alden quadrangles, anchored by Little Center and Dana Commons, were built. As Wilson notes, “These two quads embodied significant new ideas about student living with their configuration of dormitories and common dining and activity spaces. Their two-tone concrete-and-brick design, arranged around a sculpted courtyard landscape, is a prime example of the mid-century modernist desire to fuse geometry and biomorphic sensuality, industry and nature.”

In May of 1969, a mere two months before he left footprints on the moon, astronaut Buzz Aldrin cut the ribbon on the Goddard Library. Aldrin’s participation was the perfect match of man and building, since architect John Johansen’s “brutalist” design — so radical in style that some of Wilson’s students compare it to a Transformers toy — spoke to the university’s commitment to modernity, ambition and forward-thinking.

The third phase, from the mid-1980s to the present, represents the University’s move toward “green” architecture embodied in the LEED-certified Lasry Center for Bioscience and Blackstone Hall. “Clark is thinking of itself as a responsible citizen in the world [with these buildings],” Wilson said. The Higgins University Center, also built during this time, became an effective anchor for the central green, making that space “coherent,” she said.

All are welcome to the spring exhibit, which will be held for four weeks in March in the Traina Center and Dana Commons — and the portion of the exhibit in Dana Commons will stay on view through Reunion Weekend.

Wilson is asking alumni to share memories of their favorite campus buildings. Send her an email, or call her at 508-793-7639.

~ Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services