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OPINION: Architecture, Quaker Values, and Tritton & Kim

My dad is a thinker and a builder. He grew up helping his dad hammer nails and pour concrete, then went to college to study subjects ranging from history to theology. My dad is happiest when he gets to spend the whole day working with his hands: sawing lumber, laying tile, and wiring circuits, eventually coming home covered head to toe in sawdust. He taught me how to do these things over the warm summer days when I didn’t have schoolwork to do. With the long work days stretching on, we often talked about politics, religion, ethics, and more while painting vast expanses of drywall.

Of the many things my dad and I have talked about while driving nails and painting doors, one of the topics that has stuck with me the most is his views on the marriage of architecture and design with religion and morality. My dad, who has devoted many years of service to our Habitat for Humanity chapter, says that building can be a form of spiritual practice and a service to those who have fallen on hard times. Conversations with my father have convinced me that architecture has an incredible opportunity to combine art that moves and inspires us with function that serves our most basic needs for shelter and security.

Author Alain de Botton writes in his book The Architecture of Happiness: “The architects who benefit us most may be those generous enough to lay aside their claims to genius in order to devote themselves to assembling graceful but predominantly unoriginal boxes. Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.” The way I interpret this quote is that the best architecture is simple and serves our needs, and in its simplicity achieves an elegant beauty. This is a Quakerly idea. One look at most Quaker meetinghouses in the United States, particularly those in the Philadelphia area, shows that simplicity as a Quaker testimony is exhibited in Quaker architectural aesthetics.

Flash-forward to this summer, when I read an article in Dwell magazine, an architectural design rag, about Haverford’s own Tritton and Kim Halls. I was distressed to find that even though the author alludes to the Honor Code’s respect of student voices on college committees, the article was written in a way that condescended students involved in the project. The author writes of the architects’ innovative success and visionary achievement, and portrays Haverford students as annoying, uninformed obstacles to the architects’ genius. And though the architects (Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia) were charged with designing something that would “blend into the landscape without making a statement,” the $19.3 million budget, imported Danish bricks, and custom oak furniture didn’t seem to me to fall in line with the Quaker sensibility of simplicity.

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For many students, Kim and Tritton have also failed to fulfill the two goals that good architecture should accomplish: simple beauty and function.

“I didn’t like that the exterior style doesn’t match the rest of campus,” said Chris Pence ’18. “[It’s] like they didn’t even try.”

Complaints of bad sound-proofing and weirdly formatted rooms have poured in from a huge number of former and current Tritton and Kim residents. Confusion over the lack of an internal staircase and elevator between the two floors is particularly perplexing when considering the architects noted that “in part by reusing soil to create the berm, the architects found wiggle room in the $19.3 million budget to splurge on some materials, notably hand-formed Danish bricks and custom oak furniture.”

The rhetoric of the Dwell article feels contradictory and patronizing, because although the architects claimed to be “charmed…by Haverford’s Quaker tradition of treating its students as adults and giving them a say in major decisions about the school’s direction,” they had an abundance of negative comments about student input on the design committee:

“The buildings are the product of a bold design vision, as well as clever responses to a series of unexpected challenges, the first of which presented itself early on when the students on the design committee insisted the buildings be composed exclusively of single rooms, rather than the mix of doubles and triples included in the architects’ initial study for the project.”

“the buildings’ innovative design nearly proved their undoing, when some students and administrators objected strongly to the plans. “They said the things you would expect them to say if they hadn’t thought it through, like, ‘You mean we have to go outside to see the people who live below us?’” [Chairman of the Property Committee of Haverford’s Board of Managers] Friedman says. “It was upsetting, and it was somewhat controversial, but we just stayed with it, and we convinced them in public meetings. When you start getting your head around it, it made perfect sense.”

Perhaps it is understandable to assume the Dwell article did not have time to discuss the Haverford tradition of affording people private space in a residential campus where 98% of students live on campus. But the tone of these quotes paints the typical Haverford student as selfish for wanting private space, incapable of nuanced thinking for wanting interior stairs and elevators, and irrationally demanding for sharing opinions which the architects themselves claimed that they wanted to hear.

But returning to the buildings’ functionality, it is clear that many details about Tritton and Kim have failed to satisfy students’ needs. Although soundproofing is admittedly an expensive affair, I doubt that many students would hesitate to trade in custom-made furniture and imported Danish bricks for a peaceful, quiet study and rest space in their own bedrooms.

Haverford is planning a lot of new construction in the near future. Plans are in place to renovate Sharpless Hall, Ryan Gym, Magill Library, and Roberts Hall. I sincerely hope that the college will take student input more seriously and maturely as we move forward with the design and implementation of new construction at Haverford than the architects of Tritton and Kim did. If pleasing donors with flashy, innovative designs that get featured in Dwell magazine is the actual goal, then design committees ought to be more transparent about that fact. But I would be willing to bet that graduating students who are pleased with their years of housing at Haverford are going to be more willing to give money to the college during their post-graduate careers.  

We have a unique opportunity to proudly honor the Quaker values of simplicity and equality in our architecture, and to make living and working spaces that honor the desires and needs of the people most profoundly impacted by that architecture: the professors and students.

My dad taught me that a house should be a home, and it should be a haven of safety and practicality for the people who occupy it. There is no reason why such ideas cannot be transferred to the Haverford setting.