Science Building Dedication: Address

By Mauri Ditzler ’75
  March 25, 2004

Address by Mauri Ditzler ’75, Dean of the College

September 18, 2003

Thirty three years ago, on a fall weekend, I first visited the Wabash campus.  One of the most vivid memories is of my initial walk up the Center Hall stairway.  I was struck by the fact that the stair treads were nearly worn through.  Given my current perspective, I might now see that as a deferred maintenance headache.  At the time, it made me think, for the first time, of the long tradition of this College.  How many young men had it taken to wear those stairs through?  What were they now doing?  Would I be able to fill their shoes?  Later I had similar thoughts in my study room.  The built-in desk in Morris Hall had been occupied by so many students working on countless assignments.  How dare I break the tradition by not doing my homework!

I didn’t know then what Byron Trippet had said about a college’s history, but it certainly was consistent with my sentiments.  Trippet illustrated a profound understanding of what it means to be a Wabash man when he wrote:

 "The poetry in the life of a college like Wabash is to be found in its history.  It is to be found in the fact that once on this familiar campus and once in these well-known halls, students and teachers as real as ourselves worked and studied, argued and laughed, and worshipped together, but are now gone, one generation vanishing after another, as surely as we shall shortly be gone.  But if you listen, you can hear their songs and their cheers.  As you look, you can see the torch which they handed down to us."

The science building which is now new will soon become one of those "well-known halls" on this "familiar campus."  Another generation of Wabash men will try to imagine how we were ever as real as they.  They will know us, in part, by the character of this building.  It will serve as an expression of what we thought about education at the beginning of this promising century.

Indeed, this building will remain as an artifact after we have become one of Trippet’s "vanishing generations."  Buildings have a remarkable permanence when compared to the people and discussions which regularly fill a campus.  Yet, when Wabash alums reflect on their College they rarely comment on buildings.  Instead they praise fellow students from whom they learned, faculty who challenged them, and special traditions that create those communities for a lifetime.

I was reminded of this focus recently when I read alum Dan Simmons dedication in his most recent work of science fiction.  In introducing us to Ilium he notes that the book is for Wabash College:  its men, its faculty, and its legacy.

Wabash men, Wabash faculty, and Wabash’s legacy:  Nothing there about buildings.  Rarely do we hear alums reminiscing on the impact of Center, Yandes, Goodrich, or the Chapel; these are special places because of whom and what they housed rather than for what they were.

But, today we dedicate a building, and so for a few fleeting minutes our emphasis will be on the structure itself.  Those involved in the planning will look with pride at the items they lobbied for.

  • As representative of the Building and Grounds Committee Ross Faires, is saying to himself:  I sure am glad that the final revisions to the plans called for an additional two inches of window trim and limestone bands across the face of the building.  Without them there wouldn’t be quite enough white on the building.

  • Representing our design firm, Ernie Wagner is saying to himself:  I sure am glad that we held the line at two inches additional window trim and just a few bands of limestone.  Any more and there would be too much white trim on that building.

  • Members of the building committee will look at the windows that make lab work visible from the corridors.  Great idea, they will say, glad we thought of that.

  • Somewhere out there, a team of engineers and architects are smiling as they think of how they cleverly hid all the air intake vents.

  • Craig Bell will congratulate himself on having found a way to avoid building a retaining wall between the new building and Center Hall. and

  • David Phillips will work to train his eye to ignore the two or three irregularities in the brick pattern that only he knows exist.

Colleges like ours place high demands on all their facilities.  Science buildings face unusual and special challenges.

  • For the safety of students and faculty a science building must function as a brick-lined smokestack.  Twenty four hours a day, year round, despite the weather, the building must inhale large volumes of fresh air and exhaust equally large volumes of potentially toxic, but climatically ideal air.

  • Animals must be kept alive, chemicals must be kept stable, sensitive instruments must be supported. and

  • Student safety must be guarded.

At our College we add a number of special challenges.

  • We want our buildings to be places where students are introduced to supportive communities; individually learning hope as collectively they manage tasks which seem overwhelming.

  • We expect the building to serve as a catalyst; placing student apprentices in proximity to their mentor, adjacent to fellow students, close to supporting instrumentation, and at the intersection of two departments. and

  • We want a building with unique mechanical demands to blend seamlessly with buildings constructed before central heating or indoor plumbing.

Many of you have worked tirelessly to make these things happen.  You will know you have succeeded if no one notices your handiwork and our attention remains on Wabash men, Wabash faculty, and Wabash’s legacy.   The goal all along has been that this new building will quickly become "just another Wabash College building."  The ease with which we make that transition will be a measure of the quality of the building.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore completely the subtle, even subliminal lessons we can learn from the design of our campus and its buildings.  It would be a mistake to ignore the quiet but profound impact of architecture in establishing our campus environment.  Think about your reaction the first time you walked across the central mall.  Whether that was earlier this year or fifty years ago, it was probably a mesmerizing experience.  And, if you are receptive, the campus will whisper a new and interesting message each time you return. 

What message might the campus give us today?  At Wabash buildings, landscape, sidewalks and play fields all seem to come together to create a coherent campus.  Visitors often comment that everything fits.  We worked hard to accomplish this with the science building; with the MXI facility, and with Trippet Hall.  Each of these new buildings fits and soon will seem to have been here forever.  But, these buildings are remarkably different from each other just as are all our campus buildings.

What are the features that make a building fit the Wabash campus?  The answer, I believe, continues to be a mystery.  The best we seem to be able to do is recognize what works and what doesn’t.  Perhaps that is why architects find commissions at Wabash to be such a challenge.  If you walk around campus you can find precedent for virtually any architectural feature you might want to put in a building.  But, combined in the wrong way, these features just won’t work.  There are lots of different brick patterns; there is no common approach to jack arches, there are dramatically different windows, there are both square doorways and arched entryways.  Some buildings have elaborate limestone trim while others have markedly simpler features.  We can find buildings with curved walls adjacent to boxy buildings.   Somehow this remarkable architectural diversity creates a remarkably coherent presentation.   

In a wonderful way, this unique blending of dissimilar design features into a coherent campus mirrors our educational philosophy.  Our emphasis at Wabash transcends the specific; our eye is on the broad and elusive goal of providing a liberal arts education.  Faculty members residing in the new science building are chemists and biologists.  But they are not primarily Professors of Chemistry and Biology, first and foremost they are Professors of Wabash College.  Students will pursue first a liberal arts education; the chemistry or biology degree will be secondary.  Certainly this building will be the home to future chemists and biologists.  And some of those chemists and biologists will make their impact through scientific endeavors.  But more importantly, the science building supports faculty who work hand-in-hand with colleagues in other disciplines to help all Wabash students learn to think critically, lead effectively, act responsibly and live humanely.  Our larger goals for this building are identical to the goals for every other building on campus. 

Just as the exteriors of our buildings combine unique features into a coherent campus, we hope the interiors encourage the creation of communities that, while unique, serve to nurture coherent communities of learners.  Ours is a community of communities that very much mimics the mix of distinctive elements and common purpose that we observe in our campus structures. 

Think for a minute of all the ways our new building fosters the creation of local scholarly communities.  We have those four delightful end-of-the-hall "accidental study spaces."  Walk the building virtually any day or night and you will find a group of students working together on a lab report or homework assignment.  Sometimes there is a professor present, sometimes not.  Sometimes the students are in the same class, sometimes they are from the same living unit.  Sometimes the work is intense, with chalk flying and focused interchange, sometimes the learning is relaxed and leisurely.  Always the views out the windows are breathtaking.  And, never is there a closed door!  These places are special for what they do and what they say about us as a College.  Every science building design I have seen in the last fifteen years has started with spaces much like these.  However, they are almost always sacrificed or cut back during the dreaded "value engineering" phase of the project.  We did our share of value engineering ---- in the millions of dollars --- during this project.  Never once was it suggested that these community learning spaces be sacrificed.

And, these are not the only community spaces integral to the building.  The wide halls that lead to each cluster of research labs are designed to invite students to spill out of the laboratory and create local commons areas.  These will support interactions in the Haenisch Reading Room on the second floor and the Hearson Reading Room on the first floor.  There are campus-wide commons areas on stairway landings and outside classrooms.  The courtyards have benches for small and large group discussions.  And, hidden away in the basement is a late night student study room.

Even before I returned to work at Wabash, I learned that the College was planning this new building.  I called the lead architect and asked if he could persuade me that Wabash was getting a building that would work.  He talked about community spaces, important adjacencies, and the cascading stairway --- what he called the vertical corridor.  He promised that the building would be alive with student activity.  As I walked through the new structure last night, I was persuaded that the building is delivering on that promise!  

Casual visitors to our campus sometimes note that it seems to be a remarkably uniform place.  Students exhibit unusual community spirit, love for tradition, and a connectedness that is absent on most campuses.  Yet, at the same time, those who look carefully at the individuals who make up our student body comment on our remarkable diversity.  Just recently a national publication that monitors educational opportunity for African American students ranked all national liberal arts colleges in terms of their percentage enrollment of black students.  Wabash is seventh.  When Wabash is at its best, we create an environment in which students of different academic interests, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and different economic class merge into what seems to those who observe society in general as a remarkably cohesive community.  Just as we struggle with architects and builders to create structures that are both distinctive and common, we must be ever vigilant in ensuring that our students can be unique even as they create the special community that is Wabash.

Some find our approach counterintuitive.  We work to create an effective learning community without the force of a common mold.  Missing on our campus is the homogenizing impact of placing all first year students in a similar living experience.  Missing on our campus is the large, common dining hall.  Missing on our campus is a large, single programmed space going under the name "campus center."  Yet, in spite of this, or maybe because of this, Wabash has created an environment that, while not ideal, is far ahead of most colleges in creating a coherent community from diverse students. 

As with our buildings, we work to create coherence through interaction rather than homogenization.  Wabash is remarkable at creating and supporting small communities; when we are at our best those small communities crosslink to create the greater Wabash community.  Given our size, it is rare that even small communities can be composed of identical individuals.  Instead, they are a blending of individuals with some common elements and some unique elements.  A community of chemistry majors will not be composed of only Phi Delts, or only independents, or only football players.  But, it will likely have some of each.  A community of Sigma Chi’s won’t be limited to Biology majors but it will almost certainly have several.  Any one of our individual communities will provide a link to other communities on campus.  Our communities crosslink and from those linked communities we build a remarkably strong campus culture.  The strength of the overall community is built on the strength of the individual communities and the character of the crosslinking.  Our new science building will be a successful building if it simultaneously creates strong individual communities and ensures that those communities crosslink.

Think again about those wonderful serendipitous spaces; those who have walked the building have already seen groups of students gathered there to prepare for a genetics exam.  We know that facing such a challenge as a group can be a powerful bonding experience.  Equally important, though, these spaces will surely provide an opportunity for the son of an Indiana farmer to explain his culture to the son of a Chicago attorney.

The relaxing courtyard space will provide summer interns with opportunities to share advice on reactions that won’t or separations that don’t.  If the building and the College work as they should, it will also be a place where a pre-med discouraged by an Organic Chemistry exam will get advice on perseverance from a student athlete who has struggled to understand the mysterious relationship between practice, preparation,  and payoff.

Objects constructed of bricks and steel have inertia.  When curricula are dependent on those buildings they too have inertia.  A new building should reflect the core values of the institution it serves; if there is dissonance the immobility and patience of the physical structure may, in time, win out over that which is a construct of the mind.  We are not surprised when a strategic plan, a major research Center, or the hiring of a faculty leader impacts an institution’s educational philosophy.  But, in time, and in subtle ways, the acceptance of an architectural drawing for a new building may have an even greater long-range impact.  So, it is good that we did not get an "off-the-shelf" building.  It is good that we went through several major revisions and made many minor changes throughout design and construction.  Because our College draws strength from its local and collective communities it is reassuring that our decade of planning and building has yielded a facility that will support our community of communities.

So, to whom should we dedicate this marvelous facility:

Certainly, it will serve generations of Wabash men, Wabash faculty and Wabash traditions.  But today, let us dedicate it to supporting both the many and the single communities that define this very special College.  Let us dedicate this building to the important task of creating community.