From the air, the sundial courtyard outside Swem is pretty impressive, with its symmetrical paths leading to and from the library, Andrews Hall and other points on William & Mary’s campus.
From the ground, and advanced architecture students’ perspective, maybe not so much.
“The entire area frames you and prepares you to see something really cool and great in the middle,” said John McGrath ’16. “And there you have a little, two-foot-tall birdbath sundial. It felt underwhelming to me. There are some OK places to sit in that circular pathway but besides that, eh, I don’t know. Nothing to get excited about.”
McGrath is one of five of Architecture Professor Ed Pease’s advanced students who recently worked on a project to revamp some of the spaces outside of Swem with an eye toward making them more productive for the library’s programming, for student use and as outdoor classrooms. And most of them were unmoved by the current configuration.
“The paths aren’t useful,” said Tanner Blankenship ’17. “It’s a big space that nobody can really use, even though it could accommodate a lot of people.”
“And don’t forget the spiky bushes,” McGrath chimed in.
“That was your problem. You didn’t like the prickly bushes,” Blankenship said.
“They separate off the semi-useful spaces, but they aren’t really tall enough to divide them into anything private,” McGrath explained. “They also drop their spiky leaves, so you can’t sit near them.”
Mary Samson ’16 thinks her colleagues are too rough on the space. “I don’t think it was necessarily horrible,” she said. “When you walk through with a critical eye, you can find anything. But I think part of it was approaching the assignment from an architectural perspective, seeing where changes could be made not just with the landscape but with the outside architecture and trying to integrate landscape architecture with our plans rather than just changing the landscape.”
Every semester in advanced architecture, a course offered through the Department of Art & Art History, Pease assigns one or two large projects to be chipped away at through multiple iterations over the course of the semester.
This assignment was different because it grew out of a confluence of interests at William & Mary all investigating ways to better use outdoor space. The main effort grew out of a two-year grant from the Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment funding an interdisciplinary group exploring campus biodiversity and public health and wellbeing at W&M. In the second year of the grant funding, a branch committee examined the concept of W&M’s outdoor “third places” through a documentary film, campus green space map and website, a class on urban ecology, another on campus parks, symposia and the architectural project. That’s when Pease was first approached about enlisting his students to reimagine some outdoor spaces on campus.
“It just seemed like things were coming together in that moment in a way that added to the creativity, the way we could think about the campus in new ways, and it really sparked research going off in different directions,” said Sharon Zuber, English professor, Writing Resources Center director and member of the committee.
“The students were fantastic. Ed did a great job mentoring them through the project to look at the spaces and to see Swem in a way they hadn’t before. Really, you want to make sure you have spaces the students are comfortable in. So you want to make sure they’re the ones who are reimagining it.”
Around the same time, Pease went with staff from Swem on one of its field trips to investigate trends among other university libraries, visiting North Carolina State University’s new Hunt Library. There, students can study and work on projects overlooking a lake. Swem had previously visited Grand Valley State’s library, which features a third-floor reading garden.
“There’s been a lot of movement in libraries to really think about how you transition from inside to outside and making spaces within the library that have fresh air,” said Carrie Cooper, dean of university libraries. At Swem, improving the use of space out front and on both sides of the building would increase capacity, provide new avenues for programming and offer outdoor classroom space for the entire campus.
“I think it was pretty amazing that as undergraduates, we got to have a real-life client,” Samson said. “That doesn’t happen often. It was a great experience, to hear critiques and suggestions.”
The project also departed from the traditional architecture assignment because it involved outdoor public spaces that required a closer observation of how people behave, Pease said.
“I was really inspired by Maymont in Richmond,” Samson said. “It’s just so popular. Part of its appeal is when you get to those really beautiful sculpted hills, there’s always a great place to sit and, because of the hill shape, it’s always relatively dry.”
For the Swem courtyard, her plan borrowed smaller versions of Maymont’s hills. She added a range of geometric benches to accommodate both large and small groups, creating shade with awnings directly outside of Swem. “I was trying to approach it less like furniture and more like an architectural piece that was going in the space. I tried to make a space that brings the good side of the indoors to the outdoors.”
Where Samson went up, McGrath went down, submitting a design that proffered “Sunken Garden 2.0,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a smaller version of the Sunken Garden.
“It started almost as a joke, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea,” he said. “It’s one of the most recognizable spaces on campus, so why shouldn’t New Campus have its own? Swem wanted to get students out of the library and outside, even if they’re still working. What better way to do that than to pull them into a nice, beautiful green space without spiky bushes?
“Humans are weird. We want to be in the proximity of others, but not too close. The Sunken Garden is the opposite of uniformity. It’s this big space; there’s no suggestion given as to where you’re supposed to sit. You can use it as you’d like. That way there’s no awkwardness to being in the proximity of others. It’s a very simple way to solve kind of a complicated problem.”
McGrath also designed a series of terraced patios connecting to the existing Swem building after observing the popularity of space outside the Sadler Center. “People don’t particularly like feeling like a lot of people they don’t know are traveling behind them. They are secure if there’s a nice structure behind them,” he observed, noting that he didn’t try to wedge seating near certain pathways.
“We touched on that a lot with everybody’s design,” Pease said, “That notion of how you can feel comfortable in the midst of other people.”
Blankenship added scalloped terracing to an already low-lying area adjacent to Swem with an eye to the way people watch other people. The scallops each hold a three or four people but also provide a sense of privacy for just one person, and because the space is recessed, it’s perfect for people-watching. It’s also visually interesting for people within the library looking out.
“Intimacy was another thing I was trying to accomplish,” he said. “The way the stairs are staggered and curve around, there are a lot of spaces for different groups of people or just a few, but it’s a personal space.”
Swem has identified useful outdoor space as a future funding priority, but the students understand that it’s unlikely that any one of their designs will be adopted wholesale.
“It’s a nice way to get student input, which is fairly informed as to what is missing or what could be,” Pease said. “Not that you directly copy it, but at least you’re getting a good sense of what the user might be interested in.”
Tami Back, Swem’s associate director of strategic communications and outreach, also noted that the students gathered a wealth of data on how people currently move through and use the available outdoor space.Cooper added, “We’re using this whole experiment and class activity to propel us into discussions with the campus so they understand there are a lot of faculty and students interested in outdoor space, and we’ve got some goals related to Swem’s fundraising and getting donors engaged.”