The Visual Arts Center - Edward Larrabee Barnes Architect

Visual Arts Center
"The Visual Arts Center matches the Walker Art Building's size but offers a Modernist reply to McKim's entrance stairs and to the terrace on which he placed his building."
- Lawrence Biemiller in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Beam Classroom is uniquely equipped with an advanced digital projection system that allows for dual image presentations for ease of comparison/contrast. This classroom is designed to help professors and students give elaborate multimedia presentations.

Picture Study Classroom is an intimate space equipped with a digital monitors  that allows for image presentations for ease of comparison/contrast. 

Kresge Auditorium was newly renovated for the Fall of 2011.  From top to bottom, and wall to wall, a complete freshening-up of the space includes a new ceiling system, seating, paint and carpeting, as well as new sound and lighting systems.  The space is used for lectures, concerts and other events

The following essay was published in "The Architecture of Bowdoin College", an illustrated guide to the campus by Patricia McGraw Anderson, 1988.

The Visual Arts Center


Beam Classroom is uniquely equipped with an advanced digital projection system that allows for dual slide presentations for ease of comparison/contrast. This classroom is designed to help professors and students give elaborate multimedia presentations."Originally I was expected to hook the new building onto the McKim, Mead and White structure. I insisted that it had to be one more separate building and not a wing, to respect the open-close, open-close perimeter of the Quadrangle."1 Edward Larrabee Barnes's decision as well as his rationale are typical of the architect of the 1970s. Such architects had a studious respect for the past that was expressed in a curious blend of academic and artistic styles. Many of them were splendid lecturers and dazzling theoreticians. The country was in a historical mood - the Bicentennial was celebrated the year the Visual Arts Center was dedicated.

But Bowdoin needed no reminder of her architectural heritage. President Roger Howell wrote in his Report of 1968-1969: "Not only must a building placed in close proximity to the Walker Art Building be architecturally of superior construction, but it must also be flexible enough in interior design to meet changing needs and methods of instruction."

Kresge Auditorium was newly renovated for the Fall of 2011Even before the construction of Hawthorne-Longfellow library in 1965, McKim, Mead and White had submitted drawings of proposed additions to the Walker Art Building. The 1894 building did not have spaces for instruction in either studio art or the history of art. Yet these disciplines had grown at Bowdoin, as had the collections and the consequent development of museum programs as distinct from, but complementary to, academic programs. During the twenty years of deliberation and planning and building, the staff grew from two to eight. But until the fall of 1975 all academic and museum programs were run from the lower floor of the art museum. Parts of the art collection were stored in quite unconventional places around the campus, and art instruction took place on the top floor of Adams Hall and in other temporary locations.

Thus, although the need had been acknowledged (as in the earliest days, the boards still voted to erect structures when the money shall be forthcoming), it was not until the admission of women as undergraduates in 1970 and the launching of the 175 th Anniversary Campaign Program that planning for the new building began in earnest. After five years of work, a clear enough idea of needs had been formulated. A model and plan of a proposed solution to visual art needs was produced by Walker O. Cain and Associates (the new name of McKim, Mead and White) at the request of the College. The firm proposed a new gallery wing added at the rear of the Walker Art Building, a separate building to the north, and underground connections.

Shortly thereafter a special Committee to Select an Architect for the Art Building was formed. The committee chose eighteen architecture firms from which to request proposals.

Visual Arts Center at Bowdoin CollegeIn April of 1972 the committee chose to meet with eight of the original list. In June, having chosen Barnes as architect, the committee was formally discharged, and a building committee was constituted to oversee construction. The fall issue of the Bowdoin Alumnus, which announced the inauguration of the 175th Anniversary Campaign Program, included a special supplement, a handsome color brochure with drawings of the proposed art instruction building.

In March 1974, two years after the architect had been chosen, the excavation was begun. That same fall there was a much-publicized delay of structural steel, and a year later, in the fall of 1975, there was another controversial delay. In October of 1975 the building was open for use, and that same month the 175th Anniversary Campaign Program made its goal of $14.5 million. The formal opening ceremony was in April 1976, at which time the name was settled. The Walker Art Building, which had been closed for a year, reopened at the same time.

Two considerations guided the process of choosing the architect for the Visual Arts Center. The first was the existence of McKim's Walker Art Building, considered a treasure even though appreciation for the Beaux-Arts tradition was then at its lowest point. The second was the building's use: the study and practice of fine art. These factors put more than a little pressure on the choice of architect.

Edward Larrabee Barnes was trained at Harvard University, where he studied with Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. After World War II Barnes opened his own practice in New York City. During this early period he also acted as design critic and lecturer at the Pratt Institute and Yale University. In 1962 he designed the Haystack Mountain School in Deer Isle; from 1965 to 1974 he created both a master plan and several buildings for the State University of New York at Potsdam; and in 1973 he designed the Crown Center in Kansas City. At the time of his Bowdoin commission, he had just completed the new museum for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Visual Arts Center 2nd Floor - Looking BackBarnes's problem in designing the new building was to provide space for history of art and studio classes, a library, slide storage, picture study, exhibitions, and offices above ground as well as to create underground exhibition, auditorium, studio, storage, and office spaces; and to remake the entire lower floor of the Walker Art Building.

Barnes did not have to design a museum, but he did find himself in competition with McKim, Mead and White next door, and in avoiding a direct confrontation, put himself in competition with the Class of 1875 Gateway and Richard Upjohn's Chapel. These two influences on the site challenged him to work out rather complex solutions.

The size and shape of the Visual Arts Center are echoes of the neighboring museum. Its brick walls are defined by narrow, horizontal channels as those of the older building are articulated by moldings. A broad and shadowy entrance area on the quadrangle side and a projection on the roof are also attributes the two buildings have in common. But whereas the museum rises gracefully, elevated first by a terrace and then by a high basement, the Visual Arts Center rises severely from the ground, anchored by the unrelieved corner cubes.

Visual Arts Center - Art LibraryThe museum building, in good nineteenth-century fashion, has only one principal aspect - the entrance facade. The twentieth-century architect does not hesitate to provide two different but equally compelling facades. Barnes has made the building itself a gateway. The obvious method for achieving this is the central portal, which allows pedestrians to walk through the center. A more subtle method is the very large studio window, placed directly above and of the same proportions as the portal itself. This creates a monumental vertical accent, one that he has used in other buildings.

The street facade offers no preparation for the quadrangle facade, where the central half is hollowed out beneath the third floor. The angled walls focus the pedestrian into the opening while exposing a gallery for student work.

What might seem like a severe brick box is a complex building. Its sharp, clean, and sometimes unexpected angles and measured surfaces announce an architecture of the plane. It is not sculptural, and in many ways it appears more fragile than the Walker Art Building. The Visual Arts Center relies on visual tensions in much the same way as non-representational painting and sculpture do. The shape of the hollowed quadrangle facade and the studio window are cases in point.

This once controversial building is quite typical of Barnes's canon. Its visual and intellectual demands challenge even the dedicated student of architecture.