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Kreis: Bennington's CAPA

11/28/11 5:55PM By Don Kreis
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(Host) When commentator Donald Kreis first heard of something called the "Center for the Advancement of Public Action" at Bennington College, and its 20 million dollar pricetag, he rolled his eyes. But he headed for Bennington anyway to investigate.

(Kreis) "Center for the Advancement of Public Action" sounds like fuzzy, feel-good philanthropic phraseology designed to impress wealthy donors without actually causing trouble. I found myself thinking: Nobody is spending 20 million bucks on the real center of "public action" - that park in Manhattan that spawned Occupy Wall Street.

But I'm here to testify that the Center for the Advancement of Public Action - CAPA, as it's known on campus - is not a gimmick. And I know that not by speaking with anyone from Bennington College. Their remarkable new building speaks for itself.

CAPA exudes audacity, conviction and humanity.

It's audacious because the three rectangular structures that comprise the project refuse to do what nearly all other new buildings in Vermont do: resemble, or at least play nicely with, stuff that got built 100 or 200 years ago. The sheer horizontality of the CAPA, silhouetted against a copse of tall trees, demonstrates that beauty can spring from courage and innovation.

Photo: Don Kreis
CAPA is about conviction because the architects were so disciplined. The complex is about simplicity and proportion rather than grandiosity or capital S style. In this sense, the building is a direct descendant of the International Style buildings that sprang up in the early 20th Century in Germany, France and even early Soviet Russia. The architects who designed those buildings were sure they could change the world by reducing buildings to their essence.

And CAPA is about humanity because it is clad in leftover marble from quarries all over Vermont. The stone rectangles are set in irregular rather than smooth fashion, to create texture and to emphasize that they really are piece of rock. Some of the pieces still bear signs of the machines and tools that pulled them from the earth. The message here is that the work of real people is embodied in the building.

Photo: Don Kreis
The program here is as you would expect - classrooms, meeting spaces, offices, apartments for visiting scholars - with one exception. The smallest of the structures is called the Lens and is nothing more, or less, than an elegantly stark meditation space. The proposition here is that the cultivation of visionary public activism is worthy of a built environment that is beautiful rather than expedient. In an era when public buildings equal cheap buildings, this is a powerful and compelling statement.

To design the CAPA, Bennington turned to the New York architectural duo of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. They are among the most distinguished architects in the U.S. today, happily lacking in the splashiness and flashiness of a Frank Gehry or a Daniel Libeskind. Bennington has a long history of picking great architects. That history continues here for sure.

I don't know whether Bennington College will succeed in reinvigorating the liberal arts by orienting them toward public citizenship and social change. But after checking out the new Center for the Advancement of Public Action, I'd say Bennington is an institution worth keeping an eye on.
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