Edge

Categories: Guidelines

Campus as landscape is a subject deserving a magisterial treatment. After all, Eden, the perfect environment, was a garden, not a building.

The absence of landscape on campus is as telling as a sweet smile with a missing front tooth. Some campuses are as memorable for their landscape as they are for their buildings.

Richard Dober, Campus Architecture: Building in the Groves of Academe

It’s sometimes hard to explain the difference between landscape design and landscape architecture. In my experience, one of the easiest ways to tell the difference is by topography-landscape designers work with it, while architects are probably renting D-9′s and changing it. While I consider myself a landscape designer, I have lofty goals, and like to ponder serious landscape architecture concepts. What I’ve been thinking about for the Atwater Contest, and thinking about in general in my 4+ years working here, is the concept of edge in the landscape.

An edge, at least by my definition, is any place where landscape changes. There is even an Edge Effect, according to Wikipedia. One can see this right on campus-invasive plants thrive on the edge of our forests, poison ivy grows there, and we have a much greater songbird population on the campus proper than down in the Ridgeline area. My limited research time didn’t yield any substance to the claims that humans prefer an edge, but anecdotally I’d heard this fact for quite some time. Edge is richer in habitat, and in game, and our ancestors exploited this well for dinner. I can remember when the master plan was being drafted driving around one summer day making a map of Adirondack chair locations. We were looking at land use patterns for recreation. What we discovered was that all the chairs (movable, by the way, and being at the end of the summer,  the democracy of the movement meant that all the chairs were where people chose to put them) were on the edge of lawns, or up against woodlines or trees. There is safety in an edge, in the sense of enclosure. Nobody seems to sit in the center of a great lawn, but on the edge.

Another way to think about edge is as a surround or perimeter, at least on a large campus scale. I disagree with the Master Plan on this concept, when it states

Another important, related concept is that large campuses may comprise distinct precincts, or neighborhoods. These precincts, like the large campus, may have one or more of three characteristics: a clear center (quadrangle, walk, etc.). consistent fabric (similar stone buildings), and a clear edge. Of these three, the least important, and least prevalent, is a clear edge. (page 25)

This lack of caring about an edge comes from basic designs of American campuses. Campus landscape can be thought of as either open or closed. The closed model is very European-think of the closed quadrangles in Oxford and Cambridge. Open campuses, though, keep the buildings separate, meaning reduced fire risk and greater natural light inside the buildings. Middlebury is clearly an open campus. And of our three neighborhoods, the only one that works well (main quad, the Central Campus) is because of a good edge surrounding it, that of Old Chapel road and route 125, although granted the similar stone buildings help as well.

Landscape is made of spaces and masses, and edge creates a distinctive space. In Campus Landscape, Dober writes of-

…campus landscape as a system of encountered experiences, individual landscape components that one might experience along the journey from the environs to a campus destination. Accordingly, one passes through the landscaped surrounds, arrives at the perimeter, enters the campus gateways, traverses campus roads to automobile parking or bike racks, and starts walking to the precinct and building thresholds along landscaped paths. (pg. 82)

Or think of edge in the rural landscape. I’ll quote now from another book I checked out of the library, The Nature of Landscape Design, by Nan Fairbrother. She has some pictures in her book, with captions of “A field is created by its enclosures- A country lane by its hedges.”, and in the accompanying text she states

Certainly we think of the out-of-doors as open spaces, and so it is: but it is spaces-not merely open extent but definite three-dimensional volumes defined by solids. We remember openings in the woods, for instance, lanes with hedges, fields in farmland-and these are all defined spaces. A field is a field because it has a boundary round it, and in England, where the hedges are disappearing with the new prairie farming, our dismay is by no means only at losing the vegetation of the hedgerows. For without hedges much farming countryside becomes incomprehensible: it has not structure and loses its human meaning when no longer divided into enclosures we can encompass and understand.

Woodland too, through a reverse process, takes its identity from spaces enclosed within it. Solid woodland is anonymous, a repetitive pattern of trees where one  is much like the next and the next. The distinctive places, the areas we remember, are the openings within the woods, the spaces defined by the trees.

Equally, in the consciously designed green environment the open spaces should be the essential areas of the design (the lawn of a garden, for instance), and the land forms and planting are the masses that define them. (pgs. 38-39)

A good edge makes a distinctive space. An easy example most people around here can relate to is that of Shelburne Farms. In the 1880′s and 90′s, the Webb family commissioned the famous landscape architect (OK, the father of all landscape architecture) Fredrick Law Olmstead to plan their 3800 acre farm on the shore in Shelburne. 3800 acres is large, don’t get me wrong, but the feeling while driving through the farms now is one of massive scale. The main attraction would be the inn, located on the shore. Olmstead could have easily put in a straight road from the town road to the inn, but instead he drafted 20 miles of winding paths and roads throughout the entire estate. Now, as one drives along these winding roads, the 1000′s of planted trees create walls to either side, and the trip goes from “room” to “room” along the road. Vistas open up, previous views hidden, and miles upon miles of edges reveal themselves continuously.

We have some edge on campus that works well. Think of the drive down South Main Street, Route 30, just as you pass Storrs Ave. To your left is the Main Library, with a glorious view of Library Park and Starr/Axinn, and a viewscape towards Old Chapel. To your right is the Emma Willard House, with the hint of Meeker and Munford up the way. This open landscape is enough of a contrast to the tight houses along South Main Street that an effective edge is formed- it is clear you are now in Middlebury College, not the town.

Another edge becoming nice is new to us, that of College Street driving west from town. With the new renovation to Kitchell House, and some recent landscape “editing” to Twilight Hall, we’ve created a more open landscape, with views toward the main campus. Hopefully, this is defining another edge, another entrance to Middlebury College. Look at some of our other entrances to campus, those that don’t work quite as well, such as Route 30 East, from the golf course, or Route 125 East, from the organic garden. The edge in these locations just isn’t strong enough-no boundary markers, no gateways to tell where the existing landscape ends at Middlebury College begins.

On a smaller scale, some of my favorite spots in the landscape on campus have well defined edges, and good enclosure. The back yard at the Hadley House, for example. Nice views of the golf course, but with a row of ancient Sugar maples defining an old road, and views west, framed by woodline and shrubs. Or the Forest courtyard, enclosed by the Panton stone of Forest Hall. Once the trees grow a little bit to block Old Chapel Road, the plaza at McCullough should be a little space all its own in the center of a busy campus intersection.

So how does the Atwater area make you feel? What do you think of the space directly behind Chateau? The entrance to the area from the north may be a lost cause, but I wonder about the area in between Chateau and Coffrin. Battell Beach is bounded well to the west, with a hill sloping up towards Coffrin, affording a great viewing platform for Quidditch (come back, Quidditch, we miss you). Can we pull something like that off in our area, maybe with the previously mentioned D-9 and soil harvested from the baseline improvements?

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