Design in reverse: Architecture students connect with design/build roots © Oct. 3, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

Christine Carroll built this model of a design studio that was the first building planned, designed and built by students at Goddard College in the 1970s. It is on display at the Fleming Museum.

photo by Jay EricsonChristine Carroll built this model of a design studio that was the first building planned, designed and built by students at Goddard College in the 1970s. It is on display at the Fleming Museum.

Norwich University students discovered a wealth of quirky design ideas, decaying construction and appreciation for an innovative architectural movement while studying three unique buildings at a fellow Vermont college.

A squatter was probably the most unexpected surprise, however.

Architecture student Naomi Racenet ran into a man living on the third floor of a former Goddard College painting studio. She was measuring and collecting data on the structure, now used largely for storage. The Plainfield college has become a low-residency campus in recent years, but this man, and perhaps others, established a temporary home with a computer, guitar and mattresses.

These are irrational, crazy, spur-of-the-
moment buildings.

~ Emily Farnsworth,
NU architecture student

“I think he wanted to bring [the old] Goddard back,” said Racenet, who never went back inside the building alone after the encounter.

The old Goddard has disappeared, but Norwich students have a hand in seeing that some of its ideas aren’t forgotten. During the fourth year of a five-year architecture program in 2007, Racenet and three others spent the summer examining the construction of buildings that were very much a product of their time. They were hand-built, stylistically flamboyant and sometimes unsuccessful. For researchers, that could be frustrating.

A former painting studio on the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. A group of Norwich students performed an architectural analysis of this and two other buildings.

photo by David W. SmithA painting studio on the campus of Goddard College was built by students and instructors in the 1970s. A group of Norwich students has measured and documented this and two other buildings.

“These are irrational, crazy, spur-of-the-moment buildings,” said Emily Farnsworth, recalling her early reaction. “Once I drew it, and once I built a model, it made sense.”

Goddard is about 20 miles from Northfield and Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college. With the help of Norwich Professor Danny Sagan, students obtained a fellowship to help measure and document the construction of the unique Goddard buildings—experimental structures in the “design/build” movement that took root in Vermont in the mid 1960s. The philosophy, which stresses hands-on construction, creativity and learning by making mistakes, began when a group of architects and students migrated to Vermont from Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania to set up an experimental design coalition called Prickly Mountain.

In 1970, Goddard hired two of the innovators, John Mallery and David Sellers, leading to a seven-year architecture program that had students wielding hammers as often as drawing pens. The result was three buildings full of dramatic, unusual flourishes and angles, experimental and recycled building materials and new ideas about how space should be used. At Goddard, the long-term project was envisioned as a line of buildings connected by bridges.

“I thought it was a fabulous opportunity for a college to have an arts center all in a line,” said Sellers, who works in Warren, Vt. He added that Goddard students explored innovative ideas such as the separation of a building from its utility systems, which allows for easier modification.

Sellers is frustrated the buildings have been allowed to deteriorate, and hopes the school’s plans for revival will be successful. He’s grateful for the efforts of the Norwich students, who interviewed him and other design/build architects early in the summer.

“It’s great. I think it’s important that someone recognizes the work that was done,” said Sellers.

Farnsworth, who is working at a Burlington, Vt., architecture firm before applying for her final year, believes their research will be useful, perhaps critical, if anyone attempts renovation. Students at Norwich’s School of Architecture earn four-year bachelor’s degrees, and apply for a final, year-and-one-summer master’s degree program.

Measuring the structures involved a lot of time, dust and shuffling around old filing cabinets, refrigerators and doors. Many features, such as Plexiglas windows, skylights and the bridge connecting two buildings, have rotted away. Students used tape measures and drawing pads instead of more sophisticated measuring devices, and had to unravel construction ideas that initially make little sense.

“The buildings are really decaying and falling apart,” said graduate student Christine Carroll. “They basically call them the ‘hippie buildings.’

“You really have to move though the building to see what they were thinking. I really had an appreciation by the time I’d finished ... it was really enjoyable to be in those spaces.”

Racenet pulled out a pad of paper to describe one of her favorite features of the painting studio. She drew the outline of a building with a skylight on a first-floor roof, which allowed the person inside to look up at taller portions of the building. “It makes sense, once you’re inside,” she said.

Sagan, who is working on a broader examination of design/building with the help of eight students, and is guest curator of an exhibition on the subject at the University of Vermont, said deconstructing, measuring, drawing and modeling buildings is a practical task, and critical for a real understanding of building space.

“This is a skill that happens slowly,” he said. “It happens over the five years of the program.”

Sagan said Norwich perpetuates the philosophy in its own design/build course. In projects such as a public library addition [View story], students learn about collaboration, risk-taking and self-reliance. He hopes students will create their own way of solving design problems while figuring out how to reproduce ideas in timber and concrete. “We don’t spoon-feed them how to build stuff,” he said.

Carroll said she believes knowledge of the design/build program at Goddard will influence her own designs in the future.

“What they did was so monumental at the time,” she said. “It was helpful to see how things went together ... to stop at nothing to get an idea to work.”

The design/build movement exhibition runs until Dec. 19, 2008, at the Fleming Museum in Burlington. For information, visit the museum site.