Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Middlebury's Edifice Complex

The layman wanders with some trepidation into the minefield of architectural commentary – but I'll take a few steps anyway.
Anyone traveling traveling into Middlebury via Route 30 has no doubt taken notice of the new Axinn Center. That's the large complex rising on the Middlebury College campus on South Main Street near the college's new library.
Along Court Street/Route 7 stand the beginnings of South “Village,” a multi-use project that is suburban in all but name.
And the Marble Works Residences are at last being occupied, after a dramatic year of rock blasting, giant cranes and the ascendance of what must be downtown's tallest non-church structure.
So what's to be made of all this new building, and how will it reshape the county's shire town? Only time will tell for sure, but it's not too early to offer some preliminary conclusions:
* Middlebury really needs to rethink its guidelines for how far buildings must be set back from the road. In its proximity to Court Street, the bank building at South Village will block one of the town's finest views, of the Green Mountains as they sweep south of town. And the college's Axinn Center all but sits in the west lane of S. Main St. Didn't anyone look at a map when these things were sited?
* The college has the economic wherewithal to build “green” while other don't. The Axinn Center will have a much smaller environmental impact – at least on a square-foot basis -- than did the old library it supplants. The South Village and Marble Works buildings, by comparison, seem to be pretty standard construction where cost takes precedence over environmental concerns.
* We're still small enough that even one new project brings with it significant changes to the areas around it. Three projects coming into use at about the same time will alter how the town looks at its center and on its edges.
The Marble Works Residences first catch the eye because of their imposing size. That fourth, top story probably represents whatever profit there is in the project for the developers. But to the eyes of many, the building is at least one story too high.
Nonetheless, credit the developers with a design that's in keeping with the setting and the vernacular, echoing the long-gone mill buildings that stood along Otter Creek, as well as the existing Marble Works itself. The downtown location is the project's most eco-friendly aspect – and a welcome relief from the Route 7 sprawl that now reaches, with a few interruptions, from East Middlebury all the way to New Haven. The project is in exactly the right kind of location, one that encourages walking and community life.
The college's Axinn center takes the prize for Project with the Longest and Most Incomprehensible Name: "The Donald Everett Axinn '51 Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Starr Library." (The college website says it will be “informally known” as the Axinn Center at Starr Library. Presumably everyone who speaks this “informal” name must also pronounce it in a snooty British accent.)
Apparently wary of angry alumni who fondly recall falling asleep in the old Starr Library, the college is talking up the Axinn center as if it were a minor makeover of the library, which it refers to as “an historic campus icon.” In truth, though, Axinn remakes the entire area within several hundred yards, even adding a building at the southern end of the sainted Old Stone Row.
The college has proven to have quite an edifice complex, and this project is no exception. Though it is still under construction, it's safe to say Axinn will be stylish, massive, and very expensive. We can only hope it will prove more durable than the Ross Commons building repaired this summer due to the danger of falling stone or, say, the bizarre Center for the Arts building, where the southeastern exposure was patched up last summer because it was leaking.
And then take South Village – please.
I recognize that many people have worked hard to bring this project to reality and make it a credit to Middlebury. Again here, it's too soon to say what its final impact will be, yet the early signs are not good. Hopefully its commercial elements will generate stable new jobs for Vermonters. And the project has the singular merit of providing affordable housing in a new apartment building from Housing Vermont. But did the appearance of this building really have to be neo-East German?
The 31-acre site, once owned by the college and home to the Maple Manor Motel, will greatly compound the traffic problems on south Court Street. Worse, it will shift even more of Middlebury's population and economic activity from the historic, human-scale downtown to a car-based sprawl well away from the village.
I hope the 56 houses to be built at South Village prove me wrong, but for now, the best thing that can be said about the project is that at least they didn't build a Wal-Mart.

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