THE key to building great architecture is often having the ideal client.
In Renaissance Italy, the Medicis commissioned great art works. In postwar America, multinational corporations crowded cityscapes with noisy, oppressive monoliths. And throughout time, governments have commissioned plenty of nondescript architecture. But consistently, colleges and universities have commissioned architecture that manages to transcend time, place, and even purpose.
Several major colleges and universities have recently dedicated new facilities that are solid architectural accomplishments.
Yale University in New Haven, Conn., dedicated the Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology Oct. 7. The muscular red-brick building hums with energy and activity like an updated 19th-century factory or power plant. The Bass Center already seems to be a fixture of the campus landscape.
Designed by the architectural firm of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood in Boston, the new building creates a physical bridge between existing buildings and a conceptual link between various scientific disciplines at Yale. It is connected at one end to the J.W. Gibbs Research Laboratories and at the other to the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.
Along with Philip Johnson's Kline Biology Tower on the opposite side of Science Hill, the Bass Center creates a new quadrangle for Yale. This new ``captured open space'' is one of the supreme accomplishments of the design, says Noel Michael McKinnell, the project's principal architect. ``A quadrangle is always the ultimate physical symbol of the university in that it belongs to nobody, but is everybody's,'' he says. ``Metaphorically, the open space symbolizes the endeavor of the university in joining all these disciplines together, informing one thought pattern with another.''
To design the $20-million, 90,000-square-foot facility, the architects solicited input from three constituencies in the university community: the scientists who would occupy the building, maintenance workers, and university administrators.
``The process was interactive and involved 2-1/2 years of input,'' says Kevin MacKenzie, a Yale graduate student who works in the new building. The resulting research space creates an atmosphere that stimulates ideas ``that can only happen if people can get together,'' adds Paul Harkins, a post-doctoral researcher. Many architects' clients don't invest that kind of time and effort in the process.
``Universities are in the business of thinking, so it's no surprise that one finds university clients willing to take the time to consider all the issues,'' Mr. McKinnell says. ``They tend to be very considerate of possibilities. One sees in the arts today - and architecture is no exception - a desire, even a compulsion, to make for the moment.''
Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, considered one of the world's top architectural firms, has done about 75 percent of its work for university clients ranging from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and Washington University in St. Louis to the Nanyang Technological Institute in Singapore.
``It's vital that any addition to the fabric of a university be seen to support its tradition and project it forward,'' McKinnell says. ``That does not say that it has to replicate what's already there. It doesn't mean that it shouldn't be a modern building. But it does mean that it has a very clear burden of responsibility in understanding that it is only one building block of many.''
The same sort of sensitivity to tradition has guided the design by Madrid-based architect Jose Rafael Moneo for Wellesley College's Davis Museum and Cultural Center, which opens this Thursday.
The $11.7 million building links two existing arts buildings, the Jewett Arts Center and Pendleton Hall West. According to Susan Taylor, the museum's director and co-chair of the committee that selected the architect, a principal requirement was that the design complement rather than compete with the neighboring Jewett Center, designed by American architect Paul Rudolph.
While the exterior of the building is flat red brick that defers to the striking Jewett Center (built in 1958) across the courtyard, the museum's interior has a logical and sometimes inspired layout. From the ground to the top floor, spaces get progressively brighter. Modern artworks that are less tolerant of bright light inhabit lower levels, while inert stone antiquities populate the top floor where light floods the galleries.
Wellesley's art faculty and a trustee committee participated in an eight-month process that helped shape the design. In the end, they have a superb teaching museum. ``For us Europeans,'' Moneo says, ``it is quite amazing to see how American universities have been able to bring the actual works of art to the students.''
The calm cooperation and bonhomie evident at Yale and Wellesley is not always the result of additions to campus architecture. Moshe Safdie's chapel, which opened earlier this year at the Harvard Business School, was harshly criticized from the start. Critics scoffed at the idea of finding piety in the worldly realm of a business school campus.
But the design works. The geometric volumes seen from the outside have a ``come hither'' effect, beckoning passersby. There couldn't be a more marked contrast between the burnished, slick exterior, and the totally surprising interior.
One enters through a Biblical winter garden that provides a gentle transition from the campus. Inside, in a brilliant move, rows of Shaker chairs fill the cylindrical sanctuary. Anything more modern would have made the space seem plastic. The murmur of water coming from the winter garden is unexpected, but restful and effective.
Mr. Safdie, who also created the master plan for the campus, has gone a long way toward correcting what has been an unacceptable entrance to the business school. Almost all the school's visitors arrive by car. Yet from the parking lot, the campus has looked much like an office park. The chapel, along with the recent addition next door of Shad Hall - designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood - finishes the edge of campus, adding an element of proportion.
Successfully adding buildings to an existing campus seems to require that an architect listen to a mix of voices and let those ideas shepherd, discipline, and inspire the work. But it is a great accomplishment when the architect can keep the competing interests from becoming a cacophony.