During my freshman year at Williams, I sometimes studied in the monkey carrels in old Sawyer basement. The carrels were grimy, but a thick layer of graffiti provided much of their appeal, a distraction from whatever assignment I didn’t want to work on at the moment.
Old Sawyer is long gone now, and what’s stranger, one feels like it never existed. The class of 2020 will never know a time before an elaborate staircase of granite and marble blocks abutted the music building. As far as they know, a moat has always snaked around Hollander Hall. To them, the monkey carrels are just a vague myth of a campus they never experienced. The open grass of the quad that has replaced them makes me wonder about all the other college buildings that came and went before I got to Williams: I feel like I know this place, but four years are so fleeting to a institution that has existed for two hundred twenty-three years and a patch of land that has existed for millennia.
I sat down with Bruce Decoteau, the project manager for the quad project, to talk about his work. Decoteau has an office in Miller House, which few students ever visit: the Facilities Planning, Design, and Construction HQ is on Latham Street, sandwiched between Garfield House and Horn Hall. Minutes into our conversation, I realized that a project on the scale of the new quad was much more complex than I’d considered. Decoteau emphasized that his leadership role still made him just one part of the web of people that brought their skills to the project; to many of my questions, he said, oh, so-and-so would be the person to ask, they were in charge of buying this thing or overseeing that part! Decoteau oversaw the project through concept, design, construction, and completion, but like any project of its magnitude, the new quad required many, many moving parts.
When I asked Decoteau about the project’s biggest success, he said that it offers opportunities for students to gather and socialize. Wifi antennae allow students to work together in the open space, which is certainly more enticing than the monkey carrels of Sawyer basement, at least in the warmer months. While a few students can usually be seen sitting on the marble ledges, Megumi Asada ’17 commented that she hadn’t thought to approach them yet. “The marble is intimidating!” she said. “It’s so clean and pristine, which makes me think I shouldn’t go near it. Plus, it looks cold.” Mei Mei Chan ’17 added that maybe students just need to get used to the space: “I don’t think people flooded the new library all at once,” she said. “It was a year or so before it always felt crowded. Upperclassmen already had preferred study spots, so it took some time. Maybe that will happen with the new quad.”
There are other practical benefits to the new project: Decoteau told me that one of its priorities was to eliminate cars from the center of campus, making it more pedestrian-friendly. A sloped sidewalk in front of Schapiro makes the entire campus more accessible, another of the project’s goals. These improvements are intended to make the center of campus safer and more navigable for many students. Additionally, the space is suitable for big events: the class of 2017 will even graduate in the new quad.
Decoteau commented that opening up space at the center of campus was one of the project’s biggest aesthetic accomplishments. The view of the mountains from Paresky is certainly striking; the new quad makes it a little harder to forget that Williams is nestled in a valley. The much-discussed marble ledges are also intended to mirror the natural surroundings: Decoteau said that they’re meant to remind the viewer of the purple valley’s naturally occurring rocky ledges. Many students agree that the project is an aesthetic success: “The marble reflects the sun,” Asada said. “Walking through the quad makes me happy.”
Personally, I find the quad’s attempts to mimic nature a bit odd at times. For example, I love the rain garden in front of Hollander that’s designed to mitigate runoff. The overgrown plants are a breath of fresh air in the midst of an otherwise heavily manicured landscape. From Decoteau, though, I learned that the plants for the garden were chosen carefully to mimic nearby wetlands. This was a reminder that landscaping is always calculated and artificial; in fact, we have to try even harder to make it look natural! Decoteau also gave me more information about the grassy lawn: it’s actually made of sod, which comes from Savage Farms, Inc., a sod and potato farm in Deerfield, MA. It’s advisable to lay down sod, Decoteau said, because grass planted from seed is of lower quality: it would be brown for longer and weeds would pop up more easily. With the new sod lawn, the college gets a healthy-looking green space quickly.
Below the surface, though, the quad project purportedly prioritizes sustainability: the new Sawyer Library is seeking recognition by LEED, a certification system that encourages more sustainable building projects (Williams has committed to seeking LEED gold certification for all new buildings costing over $5 million). The old Sawyer demolition and site reconstruction (the new quad) are integrated into the new library’s bid for certification, so the college had an incentive to center sustainability concerns throughout the process. Sample LEED checklist items for the project include construction activity pollution prevention, water efficient landscaping, light pollution reduction, and incorporation of recycled content and regional materials.
Some student activists express concerns about the new quad and the college’s commitment to combatting climate change, however. Divest Williams, a student group pushing the college to divest from fossil fuels, expressed frustration. Noting that unlike fossil fuel divestment, the quad is a one-time project, Divest member Linda Worden ‘19 said, “the college focuses financially on on-campus projects that look good on brochures. These projects benefit privileged Williams students who aren’t the most affected by climate change.” Worden said that elaborate construction projects have an outsized environmental impact and aren’t always necessary, adding, “The school has more flexibility with money than it’s willing to admit, so Williams should be putting pressure on fossil fuel companies. How can the trustees claim to prioritize a sustainable campus when local water sources are contaminated by PCBs that came from factories exhibiting the same negligence as many of the companies that Williams invests in?” Beyond Divest Williams, students have seized on the quad as a symbol of Williams’s misplaced priorities: an online petition titled “Williams College: sell 4-5 marble blocks to pay for a new therapist at the health center” has collected nearly 500 signatures.
In the end, the quad reminds me that the Williams campus is forever in flux, the needs of one generation (the old Sawyer generation) differ from the needs of the next (the new Sawyer generation), and that even within a single generation, there’s plenty of dispute about what we really need and what we value. Walking through the quad last week, I saw a group of guys playing frisbee over the spot where I once studied at two in the morning. It was a much more joyful scene than I ever associated with that piece of land during my freshman year. The frisbee players were probably too focused on tackling each other to think about the politics of this land, the careful planning behind its current appearance, and what it means to various members of the college community, but their active use of the space reminded me: a plot of grass is never just a plot of grass. Through our relationship to land, we imbue it with layers of meaning.
Abby Rampone ’17 is a communications intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives.