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FOSTERING DEMOCRACY THROUGH ARCHITECTURE

William Rawn For the Boston-based firm of William Rawn & Associates, their architectural philosophy lies in fostering democracy and community in every project, drawing inspiration from around the globe.

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oZ WORLD MEDIA, LLC 1330 New Hampshire Avenue Suite B1 Washington D.C. 20036 Construction Leaders Today is a quarterly B2B trade journal that services the construction industry in architecture, custom build, geothermal, green building, specialty architecture, posttentioning, and new technology sectors. CLT has a readership of 100,000 C-Level executives within the energy industry. We do not accept subscription requests from the general public, however an abbreviated version is available on our website.

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WILLIAM RAWN ASSOCIATES by Rachel Goldberg

In Cambridge, Mass., home to elite universities Harvard and MIT, the public library is known as “The People’s University.” With an average of 1,700 visitors a day and lines out the door on the weekends, the new Cambridge Public Library, completed in 2009, proves that a library can be a diverse gathering place for people of all ages and backgrounds. And, thanks to the collaboration between William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. and Ann Beha Architects, the library has become the civic heart of its community. The architects at the Boston-based firm of William Rawn & Associates are transforming not just the faces of their buildings, but how the people within them learn and interact. They subscribe to the fundamentally American philosophy of architecture as fostering democracy and community, and they draw inspiration for their contemporary designs from all over the world. They believe they can enrich communities by giving them open and inclusive spaces with a strong relationship to place and people. “We really believe that the architecture should speak to and feel of a place,” says principal Cliff Gayley. With each project they take on, they make a commitment to understand the client’s and community’s needs. In a very literal way, the architects at WRA try to put themselves in the position of the people who will be affected by their project. Early on in the design process, they spend a few days “camping out” in the community or college campus, to learn about the culture and needs of the place and how their designs could contribute. “We’ll meet with students in the dining center. We’ll go to performances on campus,” Gayley says. Doug Johnston, a fellow principal, adds, “many architects offer charrettes that aim to solve clients’ problems quickly over several days. But our process is about repeated listening and learning that leads to more thoughtful solutions, unique to each opportunity.” For a dormitory building on the Swarthmore College campus, 1. Bowdoin College Studzinski Recital Hall, Brunswick, Maine. Photo by Robert Benson Photography

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a group of students was directly involved in the design process and even took the architects on a “midnight tour” to get a better look at campus culture. “It was a perfect way to see what kinds of spaces succeeded in bringing these really hardworking students together for some intense socializing and where things worked well, where spaces were underused. It really helped us fine tune and think about how that building could relate to the specific culture of Swarthmore,” says Gayley. A spirit of collaboration is important to their work, especially because so many of their designs have an inherent civic interest. Many of them involve a lengthy process of negotiating the needs of the various interested parties in open meetings. Though all of this outside input makes the process more complex, Gayley says it ultimately allows the firm to come up with a realistic and successful design. “On a college campus there is a sense of publicness, a

community of student and faculty scholars, that is part of a broader off-campus community that includes the cultural, civic and business life of a town or city,” Gayley said. “So a lot of our buildings are about creating community around the mission of learning, but also create that community in a way that links town and gown.” Many of their university projects are located at the edge of campus, where the school and city meet and sometimes conflict. WRA’s mission is to integrate the views of both. For a planning project in Charlottesville, Va., they had two clients: the city and the University of Virginia. By giving both constituents from both entities a platform to air their concerns, the public planning meetings offered a unique opportunity to heal some of the longstanding tensions between the city and university. At schools like Williams College and Northeastern University, where the campus and city overlap, WRA designed buildings to serve as gateways, welcoming movement between the two, rather than walls dividing them. With many projects located in urban areas or college campuses with a distinct existing architectural style, the challenge facing the firm is to create something new that will add to rather than diminish the established site. When designing the new Cambridge Public Library, Gayley said an important part of their job was collaborating with associate architects Ann Beha Architects in order to “restore 2. Swarthmore College Alice Paul Residence Hall, Swarthmore, Pa. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. 3. Wheelock College Campus Center and Student Residences, Boston, Mass. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. 4. Williams College,‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown, Mass. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. 6 Construction Leaders Today


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the jewel-like quality of the old building.” Rather than forcing the architects to conform to the style of the old building, historic preservationists on the Cambridge Historic Commission encouraged them to create a modern tribute to the old building, which was ahead of its time. The resulting buildings “are distinct and yet they have a very strong dialogue with each other,” Gayley said. “Together they define this civic outdoor space, but on the inside they are seamlessly integrated.” The building’s distinctive look is due in large part to their innovative use of a double skin glass wall, the first of its type in the U.S. The concept of the glass walls fits with their desire to use natural light to open up the structure to its surroundings. The design was inspired by walls that the designers saw while traveling in Europe. “It took a lot of commitment,” Gayley said. “We had to do significant research and then translate that into a much more modest version.” The glass walls’ appeal is not only aesthetic;

they also make the building far more energy-efficient by creating a thermal barrier in the harsh climate. The natural light and ventilation provided by the walls were among many green elements of the design. The company’s lofty ideals are also balanced by a commitment to getting their designs built and sticking to the client’s budget. They learned from early experience in building affordable housing projects to produce quality designs within a realistic budget. Johnston says that the architects make a point of designing with physical models, to give the client a more complete sense of what the finished product will look like, though they also use computer-aided design technology. As the company has grown in size over the years, they have chosen to remain a medium-sized company in order to maintain the high quality of their work. The three principals, William Rawn, Doug Johnston and Cliff Gayley, together with Senior Associate Sam Lasky, collaborate to lead the design of each project. “William Rawn Associates is a firm of generalists,” Johnston said. “We welcome the challenge of tackling a variety of projects and we look to the unique needs of each place.” At the same time, Johnston notes that there are a number of reoccurring themes. “We are firm believers in natural light and its connection to the life of a place-- whether it’s a city street, campus quad, or a concert hall,” he said. Because each building is informed by its setting, William Rawn Associates considers each project a learning experience. “There’s a growth in our work,” Gayley said. “We’ve been around now for 27 years, but we still think of ourselves as a very young firm, always learning.” CLT 5-7. Cambridge Public Library, Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Robert Benson Photography. Summer 2010 9


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