The Center Cannot Hold 

Vandy overhauls Sarratt

Vandy overhauls Sarratt

Nestled into a sloping plot at the heart of the Vanderbilt University campus, the Madison Sarratt Student Center is a quiet landmark. The brick building, constructed in 1974, is layered with cantilevered concrete balconies. It is one of Nashville’s rare expressions of modernism in the horizontal, land-hugging idiom of Frank Lloyd Wright. Nashville architect Robert Street designed the center to provide baby boomers with warm, informal spaces that have the feel of a private living room.

Now Vanderbilt plans a $10.5 million remodeling of the Sarratt Center to bring it more in tune with student tastes in the ’90s. That’s quite a challenge for the planning and design team, composed of the Cambridge, Mass., architectural firm of Bruner/Cott & Associates, local architects from John Johnson Crabtree, and members of Vanderbilt’s Campus Planning staff. The team must take a building that speaks the back-to-the earth architectural language of the hippy-dippy generation and reinterpret it for a brood that has come of age in the world of the shopping mall.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, architects such as Robert Venturi touted complexity of design as a welcome antidote to the overly organized symmetrical boxes of corporate modernism. In his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966, Venturi pointed out the humanizing elements that were missing in America’s version of the International Style. ”I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function,“ Venturi proclaimed in ringing, Whitman-esque tones.

After three years of debate, a site was chosen for the Sarratt Center that encouraged the complexity called for in Venturi’s manifesto. The small parcel of land was wedged between existing buildings on a steep grade that formed a major pathway between the academic and residential areas of the campus.

”When I first saw where we were going to build, I was pretty surprised, not to say skeptical,“ Street recalls. ”There was a full one-story difference between where you’d go in and where you’d come out on the lawn. It seemed too tight to accommodate a building with such a variety of uses.“ Those uses included offices for the student activities staff, as well as student organizations such as The Hustler newspaper, a cinema, an art gallery and studios, a music listening room and a lounge for socializing, a billiard room, the Overcup Oak pub, and meeting rooms. The new student center also had to wrap around the 1950s-era Rand Hall, which housed dining and bookstore facilities.

Street’s magic formula was a multilevel collection of individual spaces bisected by an outdoor walkway. ”I spent many an early morning watching the students trudge up the hill, heads down, on the way to class,“ he says. Street decided to retain an open pathway through the building and to break up the steepness of the grade with half-story flights of steps connecting the various levels. ”We thought it would be distracting, noisy, and unnecessary to bring those who were just passing through into the building,“ he explains. ”And we wanted to create the opposite of Rand Hall, which was composed of dull, huge spaces—a typical school cafeteria. Our thinking was that each of the activity spaces should be independent.“

Because the students requested a center that avoided the institutional character of other campus buildings, Street ”deliberately chose to be a little confusing, to signal that the center was a place where students come for fun.“

The Wright stuff

Envisioning a building with a complex program on a problematic site, Street allowed the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright to creep into his design. ”I liked Wright’s work very much—it’s difficult to fathom, not immediately comprehensible,“ Street says. The strong horizontal lines of the Sarratt Center’s cantilevered concrete balconies recall Wright’s Falling Water, a private early-’70s residence suspended over a creek in Bear Run, Pa. The brick-and-oak interior of Sarratt, with its unexpected stairs and startling spatial contrasts—dark, cozy inglenooks are juxtaposed with large rooms and balconies that offer views of the surrounding lawns—calls to mind the living spaces in Wright’s Prairie houses. Wright was a man obsessed with privacy, to the point of secrecy. Sarratt is a place of private exploration and discovery.

But today’s Vandy undergrads find the intentional complexity of Street’s Sarratt Center frustrating. In the fall of 1996, members of the planning team extensively surveyed students to discover what they wanted in a new Sarratt. The responses indicated that today’s college kids have a marked desire for clarity in their social lives.

According to a report prepared by the team, a common theme that emerged from the student comments was the need for ”openness and transparency.“ The students criticized the center’s traffic patterns as ”confusing, like a maze“ and the rooms as ”dark and gloomy.“ By contrast, students praised campus buildings such as the Eskind Library and the Student Recreation Center because ”they could easily understand the overall arrangement of these buildings and how to get around in them.“

The students said that what they wanted, primarily, was a central gathering place, an indoor space that would, in inclement weather, replicate the function of the outdoor Rand Wall, providing a place to ”hang.“ Originally, Sarratt was intended, at least in part, to provide a ”loud lounge“ where students could socialize. But the lounge’s placement is removed from the traffic flow, and its living-room-like character encourages private thoughts, not public socializing. As Street recalls, ”The first time I walked into the so-called åloud lounge’—I was giving a tour—all the students looked up and said åSssh.’ They were using it as a study hall.“

Still other implications were associated with a building that could disperse students into so many independent spaces with a subdued and private character. Former associate dean and Sarratt director James Sandlin recalls that protest and insurrection were hot topics in the early ’70s, when campus administrators were imagining uses for the Sarratt Center. ”A major indoor campus gathering place that will be spacious enough for hundreds of people,“ a goal stated in the plan for the Sarratt of the ’90s, was not a top priority for administrators 20 years ago, when Kent State was in the news.

Mall-adjusted

These days, we gather in public spaces for the consumption of goods and services, not to foment political action. ”Exposure to malls has increased so much in the last 20 years,“ says Edward Belbusti, Vanderbilt University architect. ”The students are used to, comfortable with, that kind of architecture.“

For example, the Student Rec Center, which the Vandy students so admire and which was also designed by Street, is a recreational shopping mall. A central corridor lined with windows into the various bicep-building and buns-tightening activity rooms allows users to make a consumer-oriented selection of their recreation of choice. It is the same dynamic we engage in when we look through large plate-glass windows, view the merchandise on display, and decide whether to enter Banana Republic or The Gap.

Plans make it clear that the 17,000 square feet to be added in the Sarratt remodeling will be consumer-friendly. According to Belbusti, much of the new space constructed on top of Rand Hall will be devoted to offices for the various student organizations. ”There is a back-alley feel to a lot of the student group spaces now, because they are scattered all over campus, sometimes hidden in basements,“ he says. ”The groups want people to see them doing their activities, to become more visible to encourage participation.“

According to Belbusti, plans for the new Sarratt combine the building’s existing six levels into three; at the heart of the complex will be a glass atrium enclosing the existing outdoor walkway. This new enclosed promenade will provide the central social space the students want. Another goal of the plan is to provide more rational connections among the multilevel food court (characterized by Belbusti as ”three levels of distinct food-service options“), the student organization offices, and the study spaces. Large expanses of glass will help integrate surrounding rooms with a courtyard now tucked away next to the art gallery/cinema lobby.

It’s understandable that Vanderbilt students would want a center that first-time users can easily comprehend. Clarity and rationality are, after all, the key impulses behind all of classical architecture. The Peabody campus of Vanderbilt is a stellar local example of designing for outsiders—you don’t have to be in the know to navigate the place.

The Sarratt Center hides behind the magnolia curtain at the core of the old Vanderbilt campus, a romantic place where curving and winding paths are only comprehensible to insiders who already know their way around. The center is a 1970s expression of this homey illogic, and as such it deserves the respect typically accorded to more obviously historic structures. Vanderbilt should take the greatest care to ensure that, in adapting a monument of the ’70s to the language of the ’90s, the result isn’t architectural babel.

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