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Kreis: The Black Family Center

(Host) Lawyer and commentator Donald Kreis is a Vermont Law School professor by day, but in his spare time he likes to roam Vermont in search of great architecture. Recently, he ventured into a well-known border region.

(Kreis) Folks who live on the western bank of the Connecticut River can sometimes be heard quipping that if you really want to contemplate New Hampshire, the best place to see it from is Vermont. This brand of Green Mountain chauvinism may or may not be justified as a general proposition. But if you love distinguished contemporary architecture, as I do, to see the best example of good design to hit these parts in many a day you have to cross the river and visit Dartmouth College in Hanover.

Dartmouth's new Black Family Visual Arts Center is a functional example of how contemporary architecture doesn't have to be goofy and self-indulgent like Frank Gehry, whose buildings resemble crumpled pieces of paper, or monolithic and prison-like, in the manner of Bicentennial Hall at my alma mater, Middlebury College.

You might think it ridiculous, perhaps typical of a wealthy Ivy League institution, to go all the way to Norway for small rectangular panels of autumn-colored slate - but as a material around which to organize a facade that is complex without being too complex, it is both visually pleasing and a welcome respite from the relentless brick of the rest of the campus.

This golden brown slate is a favorite material of Machado and Silvetti, the Boston-based firm that designed the building. So, too, is the notion of making a staircase the building's distinguishing interior feature. If you're ever in Los Angeles, drive to Malibu and check out the masterful way that Machado and Silvetti updated the Getty Villa, an exact replica of an ancient Roman mansion. Among other things, Machado and Silvetti added an outdoor entry pavilion in the form of a richly textured concrete parallelogram through which a series of staircases allows visitors to ascend a hillside to the villa itself. It may be the coolest outdoor stairway in North America.

At Dartmouth the action shifts indoors to a three-story atrium, where the zig zaggy stairway is both the most prominent visual feature and and an opportunity to see and be seen from various vantage points. I think all this ultra-visible ascending and descending is an architectural metaphor for a dominant theme of our era - that of upward and downward mobility.

From the plaza adjacent to the Black Family Center you see the sweep of more than a half century of architectural history. To the west is The Hopkins Center, a midcentury modern masterpiece designed by Wallace K. Harrison as a precursor to his Metroplitan Opera House in New York. At center stage is the Hood Museum, a rare example of un-schlocky postmodernism by that era's great avatar, Charles Moore. And now we have Machado and Silvetti's richly complex Visual Arts Center.

This plaza at Dartmouth College demonstrates that modern architecture deserves the same love we lavish on our 18th and 19th century buildings.It's too bad you have to go to New Hampshire to see something this good.

Donald Kreis is an attorney from Norwich who specializes in cooperatives and their development. He is also a Senior Energy Law Fellow at Vermont Law School, teaching in the distance learning program. He has worked as a utility regulator in Vermont and New Hampshire and, in his spare time, writes and thinks about architecture.
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