The Commons Factor in the Atwater Landscape Design Competition

Last week, I cross posted—technically, the term is “syndicated”—a blog post in which Tim Parsons describes the Atwater “Turf Battle” competition.  More recently, Tim asked me to say a few words about how the current Commons configuration might affect designs for the landscape.  I am happy to do so, and I think I can be brief.

When the Commons system was developed in the late 1990s, it was with the expectation that each of the five Commons would serve as self-contained entities—communities within the larger Middlebury community, if you will.   Each Commons would have its own dining hall, its own library and lounges, even its own outdoor spaces.  Indeed, early discussions of Commons spaces focused on the need to develop “front” and “back” yards, landscapes that were both public and private.  To a certain extent, we achieved that separation of spaces at Ross.   On the west side of the dorms there is a basketball court that is keeping with back-yard or driveway recreation, while on the east side—in the elbow and on the plaza—the space feels more public, and open to the entire campus.

Atwater was conceived with similar goals in mind, though the surrounding area could not be so easily divided into front and back yards (however, the barbecue pit next to the dining hall does gesture toward small-scaled social functions).  Needless to say, the College did not make great progress developing the spaces between Hall A and Hall B; otherwise, we would not be holding this design competition.

Fast forward to the past couple years, and these early conceptions of the Commons no longer have the same meaning.  Allen and Coffrin belong to Atwater in that first and second-year students reside in their Commons neighborhoods.  But the Chateau and Hall A and Hall B include students from all five Commons; those buildings do not belong to Atwater.

The significance of all is that the Atwater space mentioned in the Turf Battle guidelines is not really Atwater’s.  I am not sure this distinction matters very much since no space on this campus, even with the development of the Commons system, has ever been limited to a certain population.  Still, it’s worth noting that any design that attempts to mark this space as Atwater’s—and there are subtle ways of doing this, short of emblazoning an “A,” Hawthorne style, in the grass—will be tossed aside.

On the other hand, I think the notion or public and private space, or front and back yards, still have currency in this design process.  As designers approach this open space, they should give careful thought to how the landscape of the future will be used and who in the community will want to use it.  And remember that this community also includes the summer language schools.

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