Those who are responsible for seminaries are responsible for ensuring that the use of space and materials that define the school's campus reflect and inform the school's mission. Has your board thought about what your buildings say? What are the geographical and architectural elements that tie together the various parts of your campus? Who is knowledgeable about the traditions of your physical plant? We speak in cement and glass and steel as well as words. We need to work at making our beauty speak truth.
The buildings at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., speak -- in words. "Unite the pair so long disjoin'd, knowledge and vital piety," proclaims a stone on the library wall, quoting Charles Wesley. Other buildings are graced with quotes apropos of their varied functions.
Every building speaks, although not often so literally. Use of fuel and electricity, the presence or absence of comfortable gathering spaces, accessibility -- all make statements about the structures' intended function. Seminary buildings can be austere or lush, efficient or extravagant, but all space carries a message. An unplanned or poorly thought out use of space bespeaks a lack of concern for those who will use it. Good thinking about space will result in a diversity of buildings, but will involve common planning elements -- attention to the wisdom at hand, a sense of historical and physical location, and responsible and creative use of available resources.
When Bangor Theological Seminary became a multisite school at the beginning of this decade, it was clear that one of its commuter campuses had to be in Portland, Maine, the urban center of the south of the state (the other campuses are in Bangor, Maine, and Hanover, New Hampshire). The seminary's responsibility to local churches suggested that the campus be connected with a congregation. And State Street United Church of Christ in downtown Portland had a large and little-used basement it was willing to lease.
This was a space full of potential -- but first appearances were not promising. "It smelled," recalled Pamela Anderson, interior designer with Terrien Associates, the architectural firm that was hired to turn the basement into a learning space. The odor was a left over from the basement's use as storage space for used clothing donated for the homeless and from periodic flooding, which was further evidenced by the highwater marks on the walls. "It was a dark, castaway space," said Malcolm Warford, Bangor's president.
Now, in Warford's words, "There is light where there was once only darkness." With an expenditure of $70,000 (part of the Lilly Endowment grant that funded the move to a multisite program) the space has been transformed. After the water problem was solved, the rest was largely a matter of "paint, light, and vinyl tile," according to Anderson. It is difficult now to imagine the days of damp darkness. When the visitor opens the door at the bottom of the steps in the entryway, a panorama unfolds. In the foreground is the commons, a large open space. Across the room are three glassed-off offices and a small meeting room; their wood trim is painted purple, the signature color of the Portland campus. Each clean-lined, modest office has a small quilt on the wall; so do the classrooms.
The walls of the common areas are hung with a variety of prints: some are elegantly framed, others are wrapped in plastic. "We can't afford to frame them," said the Reverend Judith Blanchard, administrative dean at the Portland campus, "but we thought it better to have them displayed as they are rather than hidden in the library's collection." Such making do with resources at hand is reflective of northern New England culture, said Warford, and has served the seminary well. The larger of the campus's two classrooms, up four steps and down a hallway from the common area, has natural light, warm wood, and a fireplace, and required just a coat of paint, a curtain, and a quilt to make it a comfortable space. "You don't have to spend a fortune," said Warford. There wasn't enough money for an area rug in the commons, for example, so a maroon-bordered gray square was set in to the otherwise checkerboard tile. That square now holds four gray chairs and a coffee table, and provides one of the several spaces for students to gather as they arrive after their day's work for evening classes. The kitchen is well used, the couch in the lounge is comfortable, the space is welcoming.
"If we had limitless money," said Warford, "we would give it to the church to help make the entrance more accessible anel more inviting-and we'd create more parking. But the point is that we don't just accept restrictions, we see what can we do within them."
Austin's "Common" Bricks
The initial statement of the bricks of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary was that beauty doesn't require great expense. The message has changed over time -- now the bricks speak of the school's connection with its past.
When the seminary built its chapel in the early years of the 1940s, it cost $47,000. It would have cost $12,000 more had it been made entirely of stone, but instead it was built with "Austin Common" brick from the defunct Butler Brick Company. The bricks were cheap because they had never been intended as finishing bricks. They were made from clay taken from the flood plains of the Colorado River, and their color ranged -- within individual bricks -- from palest pink to terra cotta to peach to dust. They also contained some yellow clay, which chips easily. Nevertheless, the bricks were sturdy and readily available, and so they were put to use.
The architect was not careless in his use of materials: indeed, he was such a stickler for detail that he insisted that the darker bricks be picked out because he thought they clashed with the pink stone used around the chapel's doors and windows. The chapel, which stands on the highest point of the seminary grounds, is a warm and gracious structure.
The seminary chapel was the first significant building in the city to use Austin Common bricks externally, but soon a number of downtown businesses were taken with their beauty and they became popular. The supply, however, was limited to those that could be harvested from buildings that were torn down. By the 1960s the old brick that had been used as a cost-saving measure was more expensive than new.
The seminary was sitting on a cache of the bricks, though. When Sampson Hall -- the big old ungainly classroom/administration/dorm building dating from 1908 -- was torn down in 1962, Jack Hodges, the school's superintendent of buildings and maintenance, retrieved 150,000 bricks. He piled them against a hillside above Waller Creek, which runs across the bottom of campus, and since then, they have been used on at least some part of each building erected on campus.
Hodges has found treasures among the bricks. For reasons nobody is sure of, some were decorated with designs including grapes, bluebells, and dogwood branches, as well as with the more predictable stars, dates, and the Austin Brick Company logo. Hodges has stockpiled about 200 of these inside the maintenance office. "I'm not sure what we could ever do with the grapes," he said. "They're all clusters and no vines."
Hodges knows the seminary campus intimately, and he is revered for that knowledge. He is retired now, but his presence on campus is greeted with enthusiasm by administrators, by students, and by Homer Bradish, who worked with him for more than a dozen years before himself stepping into the superintendent's job. "Jack knows all the stories," it's often said around the seminary campus.
Using the Wisdom at Hand
Knowing the stories and knowing the space are important for planning. Sometimes, however, it takes an outsider to help see beyond the obvious. The Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, which stands three blocks away from Austin Presbyterian, has had happy experience with trained insiders and with immersing outside experts in its stories.
Until a couple of years ago, the interior of ETSS's library was ugly and noisy. The green asphalt tiles and yellow walls gave the message, "Get your book and go." Instead of undertaking a major renovation, though, the seminary spent just $5,000, mostly on carpeting and paint, to create a very different sort of atmosphere. Part-time student Trudy Broughton, who works as an interior designer, pointed out that a consciously southwestern school would do well with a southwestern color scheme. Now mauve carpet muffles noise in the library's reception area, reading and reference rooms, and work space. Walls of pale aquamarine and mauve highlight table tops of deep burgundy, teal, and terra cotta. A loud copier has been moved around the corner toward the stacks, where the books help muffle the noise. Wisdom close at hand has created a peaceful place to linger and reflect.
At the same time, ETSS was planning a major building project. It did not as it happened, have a trained architect within the seminary community -- but it imported one. Robert Shemwell, who was studying for a master's degree in architecture at the nearby University of Texas, lived for a year on the ETSS campus. His day-to-day interaction with the rhythm of campus life and his long-term observation of the flow of traffic around campus enabled him to create a design that turned the focus of activity away from a parking lot and toward a tree-studded hillside.
The ETSS campus stretched in straight line across a slope. The chapel overlooked busy Duval Street. A short path led to the administration building and then to the classroom-dormitory building. The latter building is a long two-story structure with a bend at the end. It has sturdy pillars of local limestone, but the overall effect is sometimes cynically described as "fifties motel style." There are two covered walkways on each side of the building: one overlooks a hillside sloping upward, the other, a parking lot. Shemwell envisioned a building that would tum the straight line into a U, on that would use glass to make the hill a part of the campus.
"You can't force people into new patterns," according to ETSS's dean, the Very Reverend Durstan McDonald, "but you can invite them." The new building's inviting features include lounges, a glass-walled dining room, and student mailboxes. The success of the invitation is evidenced by the students now thronging there between classes instead of clustering in the parking lot. McDonald is particularly pleased that the twenty-odd students of the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest, who share many facilities with ETSS but have their own building across the parking lot, are now less quick to scamper back to the Lutheran center after class. The new campus center has become exactly that.
Unlike the library project, the campus center was neither a cheap nor an easy fix. The project cost $2.5 million, $1 million of which was donated by Marta S. Weeks, a 1991 graduate of the school, for whom the bUilding was named. It was not done quickly-design was thought and rethought over several years. (One early proposal was strikingly beautiful but would have doubled the school's energy costs--back to the draWing board.) The final design is, in McDonald's phrase, "elegant but not posh." He notes, for example, the simplicity with which the lecture hall opens into the dining hall. Even the glass turret, which is the building's most striking feature when viewed from the outside, is not ostentatious. The building makes a number of clear statements. It speaks of a school that welcomes the community to listen and learn-and provides them a comfortable lecture hall instead of forcing them into the chapel's hard pews. It tells of a school that values community and is willing to provide comfortable space for conversation. It visually demonstrates the school's connection to its history-the structure is anchored at either end to preexisting buildings-and to its little piece of the creation-the liberal use of glass connects the building to the outside. The care taken to avoid destroying trees unnecessarily is evidenced by the walkway that curves out to protect an oak that hugs the building.
The Intentionality of Beauty
At Christian Theological Seminary, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) school in Indianapolis, visitors are confronted with the building's statement, "You are going to interact with nonverbal expressions of faith here -- get used to it," as soon as they walk through the door. The school's entrance is dominated by an 800-pound bronze sculpture, a smooth glossy sphere that has been gouged open to expose a ragged toothy interior The ambiguity of nonverbal communication is immediately apparent. "I like it," said Lawrence Casey-Allen, a as graduate who took the photograph of Sphere No. 6 that appears on In Trust's back cover, "but so many people think it's just ugly. They don't get that it's about new life."
"When you put art on the walls of a seminary, you force people to expand even when they're not thinking about it," CTS trustee Patricia Turner-Smith recently wrote in the seminary's newsletter, Link. The art collection at as is extensive, and some triking example encounters the visitor at every tum. It would be an overwhelming message if the building itself were not so simple. Classrooms and offices open onto a white-walled hallway encircling a quadrangle that is strikingly spare, with grass in the middle and a row of trees around the edge. The clean lines of the chapel are the only break in the view.
The look and feel of CTS's campus are in large part due to the esthetic sense of J. Irwin Miller and his family. Miller, a former president of the ational Council of Churches and prominent Disciples of Christ layman, was for many years head of the Cummins Engine Co. of Columbus, Indiana. The TS chapel, for example, was largely funded by Miller's sister, Clementine Tangeman, and was named for their grandfather, Z. T Sweeney, who was a founder of the college program that eventually became the seminary. Xenia Miller, Irwin's wife, has selected and donated much of the art decorating the seminary.
All artwork receives approval from Edward L. Barnes, the architect who designed the school, and from the art committee of the CTS board. The most recent piece of art commission d for the school was unveiled in May it is an eight-by-ten-foot acrylic painting by Robert Natkin entitled "Praise God." Its lively citrus and melon colors light up the hallway across from the school's common room.
Within the chapel, the walls are also white, but the effect is far from monotonous. A slender twenty-seven-foot stainless steel cross dominates the chancel. A window of the same height stands beside the cross; some of its panels are dichromic glass that separates blue light from gold.
As the sun moves through the afternoon sky, the patterns of light shift location and design. Now the cross is picking up the colors, now the altar is turned argyle, now the water in the baptistery against the far wall catches the light and ripples it back onto the walls. The baptistery is unique: its shape reflects the arch through which it is entered (an arch in which a student sometimes sits during worship). The interior of the font, which is large enough for immersions, is tiled in blue; water runs through it continously but gently.
Worship in this space is enlivened by handbell and gospel choirs, liturgical dancers, and the use of an organ that was designed for the chapel's lively acoustics. And it is not just within the context of worship that CTS has taken seriously the commitment to the arts spoken by its building. The seminary is home to the semiprofessional Edyvean Repertory Theatre, which has a six-production season. Students with backgrounds in the arts are attracted to the school, and in turn enrich it with their gifts. The school has just established a professorship in religion and the arts, and has hired Frank Burch Brown to fill it.
CTS is extraordinarily clear about the visual statement it makes. The message does not, however, ring out entirely undistorted. The integration of arts into daily life has not filtered into every corner of the curriculum: some students, for example, acknowledge that their campus is lovely, but fail to grasp any connection between that and their studies of Old Testament, say, or marriage and family therapy. The seminary building, moreover, creates one extraordinary setting but ignores another. CTS is perched above the White River and the canal that runs beside it, but the panorama the river's COurse might offer is evident from only a couple of spots on campus. The best view is from the chair rehearsal room, out a window that few pass by. The mechanics of beauty can sometimes be awkward as well. The baptistery's waters usually flow gently, but sometimes, and notably during musical performances, it gurgles and burps like a water cooler.
Never mind. The message is never perfectly clear this side of the kingdom, and it is the gift of CTS that the school has been brave in attempting to set forth a world of possibilities. Nor are architectural and design statements made once and for all: the work of creation continues.
It is possible-as each of the schools cited here demonstrates in its own distinctive fashion-to create spaces that help their inhabitants to interact, to focus, to be still, to stretch their thought and imagination. Human beings are affected and informed in their deepest parts by the spaces they inhabit. It is crucial that schools of theology use all the resources at hand-including physical surroundings-to shape the education they offer.