May 1, 2012
Architecture students focus on buildings, but not on the people who live in and around them.
Vermont, known in the building industry for its granite, marble, and slate, is also becoming known for its abandoned quarries, now favorite spots for teenagers and hikers. One of these sites, the Wells-Lamson Quarry, operated in Washington County from the 1780s to 1986. Google Maps shows the quarry’s unique land formation: a large pool filled with rainwater, which is surrounded by woods and adjacent to the villages of Upper and Lower Websterville. This beautiful and tortured site, with its powerful stone walls, great rusted derricks, and other industrial ruins next to modest homes, was the focus of this year’s Lyceum Fellowship Competition, for which the architect Peter Bohlin developed the program. Established as a traveling fellowship by Jon McKee in 1985, Lyceum’s winners are given grants to visit and explore the built environment. This year, 221 students from 11 architecture schools around the United States and Canada took up the challenge.
Their assignment: to design an educational pavilion, artists’ studios and residences, and a memorial, bringing the abandoned industrial site into the twenty-first century while commemorating the human toll, a brutal byproduct of the dangerous work that went on there. As a member of the jury, what impressed me most about this competition was the vision of its brief. These sites, where life hangs on long after the jobs are gone, have the potential to create new employment opportunities centered around postindustrial tourism, creative communities, and local economies.
Not surprisingly, most students chose to focus on stone as their building material, and some decided to incorporate the industrial remnants. But no one combined the two resources, or ventured into the surrounding villages. The winning projects included an elegant insertion of live/work spaces, a kit-of-parts approach that uses a system of hoists and pulleys, and a scheme that recognized that the artists who move here might find the industrial detritus to be an inspiration and a medium for their work. Unfortunately, no one connected the existing settlements to the new colony.
It puzzled me. How could this have happened today? These students belong to history’s most connected generation. They’re known for their social and environmental consciousness, as well as for their desire to work collaboratively. With this in mind, I kept looking for an exception to the rule. Though the competition didn’t ask participants to connect the new development with surrounding villages, it did provide visual cues for the life lived there: the little New England frame houses, the general store, the amiable storekeeper. Why were they left out of the students’ grand schemes?