August 26, 2011 by Op-Ed
I’ve read the recent article titled “Chestnut Street Housing Plans Approved” in the July 29 edition of The Triangle that reports on the University’s plans to encase the Creese Student Center and its support buildings within an envelope of new residential living space along Chestnut Street and up 32nd Street, and to construct a garage where the loading platform is at the rear of the facility. In short, though the idea of developing this area of campus has merit, there are some serious flaws with the plan as it is currently conceived.
Granted, a more “walkable” experience and expanded retail along Chestnut Street, as the plan prescribes, are worthwhile aims, but they should not be at the expense of the future viability of this particular parcel of land as a student center and, by extension, its function as the hub of all campus life.
Chiefly, it must be observed that the Creese Student Center, as it currently stands, is a singular programmatic entity with remarkable formal continuity. It began as a Student Center and was designed, and subsequently developed, to function like one.
As a result of having no material constraints on its expansion within the boundaries of its site, conceptual development of the facility, along with its outdoor spaces, work together as one coherent patchwork of spaces. Whatever misgivings one might have regarding its historic or stylistic derivatives, it has a unique and surprisingly coherent functional nature.
Anything added to or subtracted from this will create programmatic and formal incongruities that will, no doubt, result in functional incongruities which will produce experiences inconsistent with those the building is intended to provide. In other words, things like the outdoor spaces and quiet zones that create contact with street life, and the indoor-outdoor continuities between the building’s perimeter spaces and its many terraces and courtyards — a large part of the facility’s spirit — would be noticeably missing.
Second, I acknowledge that approval of this plan is the product of a great amount of effort between the University and the city. But locating residential living spaces and a garage in this part of campus is somewhat ill-conceived and overlooks our tradition of providing a secure, coherent and slightly remote residential living space for students to feel at home as part of their university experience here at Drexel.
There is a nice density emerging in our residential zone that is unique to our approach to the world, and one that is only getting better while we add new buildings and open spaces to the University as it grows. The consequence of effectively re-zoning the campus begins to fracture our neatly arranged districts and will result in awkwardly overlapping functions within our public spaces.
For example, this plan would locate living space directly across from classroom spaces, it would make concurrent crowds of students parading to and from Handschumacher Dining Hall with private domestic functions like going to the laundry or studying in the common areas, and it could result in directing students rushing to class from the parking garage through the quiet spaces of the student center itself. Avoiding the tensions and potential lack of functionalities of this kind is the premise behind zoning and one that, in my view, continues to apply here too.
If we invest our resources into new residential living space it would be better to spend them on things like replacing the outdated Myers Hall, expanding the existing residential district onto the new property behind Caneris Hall or, perhaps something more ambitious, like buying-up the dilapidated and outdated buildings in the area north of Drexel Park and building this portion of the residential quarter anew.
On the other hand, more retail space would be beneficial, but there is also some important work left to do on the center itself. For example, MacAlister Hall, originally conceived to house Student Services, could be a much more exciting place if it were renovated and its interior spaces were updated. As it stands now they are inward looking and hyper-cellular, with circuitous and unlit corridors joining warrens of bland, unemotional and hyper-institutionalized offices. This makes them more evocative of an asylum than of spaces that develop and support the social needs of our students. Also, the two small patches of lawn along Chestnut Street could be converted into shaded landscape space that intensifies the dialogue with street life and adds to the diversity of spaces at the facility.
These are just two ways in which the potential of the center has not yet been fully realized, and I think permanently constricting the physical and programmatic context of the building at this time would destroy one of its strongest virtues, the gracious ease with which it communicates with the world around.
One day we might consider replacing Creese with a state-of-the art student center – one that, like Creese and its support buildings, is very much of its time. But if we physically constrain the building on all sides, in a way that the current plan does, we eliminate all views out into the life of the city and, for all intents and purposes, any opportunity for the University to up-date this facility without further fragmenting our neatly organized campus.
Finally, I recognize the plan is part of the 2007 Master plan created by the University before the untimely passing of Constantine Papadakis, but I think we need to give what we are doing to the facility itself some serious thought to avoid irreversibly damaging future plans for our student center and, as a result of our haste to simply infill, possibly our aims as an institution.
Michael Hyatt is an alumnus that majored in architectural engineering and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.