[Chronicle]

March 1, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 11

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    Q & A with... Curt Heuring

    Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Curt Heuring, University Architect, works in a corner office on the third floor of the venerable Young Building. On his walls are notes, drawings, blueprints and schematics for the University’s Campus Master Plan, which includes many new buildings as well as the transformation of the Midway and the renovation of Bartlett Gymnasium. Heuring, who joined the University community in 1999, brings years of experience in campus and urban planning and design, with projects at Harvard University, Bryn Mawr College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the city of Boston. He is one of a team consisting of Meredith Mack, Director of Facilities Services, and Robert Holliday, Director of Project Management, charged with implementing the Master Plan. This team is responsible for all architectural and construction projects on campus.

    Curt Heuring

    Can you describe how the University tackles this complicated and sensitive process?

    I think the administration took the wise approach by embracing two critical concepts. The first was the creation of a comprehensive master plan. The second was the notion that you must take a methodical approach to each new building by asking what is needed, what are the project’s goals, what are the assumptions, who will be served, and so forth. The design project is broken up into a number of different phases that are checked and rechecked. Are the goals being met? Does it meet our budget? Will it satisfy our scheduling concerns? Does it match our vision for what the building should be?

    Some renowned architects are involved: Ricardo Legorreta for the Max Palevsky Residential Commons, Rafael Vig˝oly for the new Graduate School of Business building, and Cesar Pelli for the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center. How were they chosen?

    First, the University does not select architects solely based on an aesthetic style or dictum or inclination. The selection process varies widely, project to project. This institution is interesting because it wants architects who, first and foremost, are creative thinkers and problem solvers. The selection of Ricardo Legorreta for the Max Palevsky Residential Commons is a good example. In the end, it came down to a choice between two kinds of architects: those who are good at what’s sometimes called “dorm in a box,” a serviceable building without character that has no distinctive link to its place or its institution, and those who have no preconceived ideas. The latter come in with approaches and issues that are important to them and that they would like to realize in the context of this environment, this University. That’s the thinking this University wants in its architects, and that’s what is so compelling about Legorreta, Vig˝oly and Pelli. They filter the culture to create something that’s unique to the place. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they tried to understand the heart and soul of this institution. They explored it deeply and then successfully transferred that exploration into something tangible.

    Since the Max Palevsky Commons are now being built, can you give me your impressions of Legorreta’s approach?

    First, I am struck now even more than I was earlier by the deftness and artistry with which Legorreta has composed the outdoor space around the commons. That’s not something I typically would think of as his strength. My belief is that in visiting the campus, he understood that some of its great strengths are its outdoor rooms and their composition. He never said this explicitly, but I believe that consciously or subconsciously he was inspired to be very sensitive to that. He has made some outdoor spaces that I think will be almost brilliant. Another thing Legorreta did was to design a beautifully transitional building that is a bridge–between this institution and the community, between academic and student life, between our Neo-Gothic and classic modernism. He’s done it very skillfully. It’s clearly a building of its time and place. However, it will work with Regenstein; he was very conscious of that. And it will work with the community in terms of the materials chosen, the scale and the fenestration. In addition, the design respects and responds to Bartlett. Legorreta was always conscious of keeping the proper distance and not impinging on those icon buildings.

    Legorreta, who is Mexican, often uses the vibrant colors that are commonly seen in his native culture. How do you think he makes his color choices?

    Color is, in my view, the most mysterious and personal design element of what we get from Legorreta. You can rationalize his decisions about the brick or the massing of the building or the organization of space, but color is really in the realm of an artistic choice. I think the colors he’s chosen, particularly for the most vividly colored elements, are intended to invoke liveliness. To have these exclamation points of color and energy and life inserted in a discreet and limited way in various elements of the building–I personally think that’s wonderful. This is a building people will live in, and Legorreta believes people should have joy in their lives. These colors represent joy to him.

    How did he come to understand the University’s unique culture?

    He came often at the beginning of the design process. He met with students, administrators, outgoing President Sonnenschein and incoming President Randel. He walked the entire campus a number of times, and made several presentations to senior administrators. Legorreta might argue that there should be a little joy to relieve the gray in this institution. He didn’t just think this up. It is his response to what he drew from all these meetings with students, faculty and staff. We’ve had similar experiences with the architects working on some of the other projects, as well.

    Can you discuss some of the other projects that are part of the Master Plan?

    If you look at the main elements of the Master Plan, it is intended to revitalize this environment. A new gym designed by Cesar Pelli that’s bright, open, and full of activity and energy; new dormitories in the heart of campus; the conversion of Bartlett to a dining facility that will celebrate the best of the old architecture–all this will create new ways of living and socializing. And if I had a pet project, frankly it’s Bartlett. That is a beautiful building that will be even more so after the project is completed. It represents an incredible architectural opportunity.

    The changes in the Midway also will be dramatic. How do you view that project?

    I’m not sure who conceived the idea to work on the Midway. It’s a tremendous move that will add so much to the character of the University and the community. As you know, the Midway has been viewed by some as a kind of barrier to the campus, a no-man’s land between the North and South sides of campus and between Woodlawn and Hyde Park. One of the things that struck me when I first came here is that many institutions would kill for the opportunity that the Midway offers us: a huge, grand lawn in the middle of the University. Now, after much talk, study and planning, we have a skating rink, and we’ll have gardens, a playground, and a horticultural center, with flowers, paths, walking bridges and fountains. The development of the Midway diminishes the perceived length of that crossing between North and South. It makes the Midway a destination in itself. When it’s done, people should look forward to crossing the Midway through those gardens to get to the Law School or to the North side of campus. And I think that addressing the Midway concerns and changing that barrier into a destination will help make the South side much more appealing.