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Goucher taps Greece for ideas

The Baltimore Sun

Goucher College's Towson campus is 5,100 miles from ancient Greece, but the latest addition promises to bring it considerably closer -- at least in spirit.

College leaders will break ground in the center of campus this week for a $46 million mixed-use structure called the Athenaeum -- a Greek term for an all-encompassing place of learning.

In Greece, the word referred to buildings dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and in particular to one temple on the Acropolis where poets, philosophers and orators gathered to read and discuss their work.

Goucher's version, inspired by the Grecian precedents, is intended to be both a literal centerpiece for the campus and the figurative heart of the academic community.

When it opens in the fall of 2009, the four-level building will be filled with spaces that encourage students and others to come together, including a library, a glass-roofed forum that can accommodate 500 to 800 people for performances and public discussions, a cafe, art gallery, exercise areas, a commuter lounge for students who live off-campus and more.

It was designed by Hillier Architecture of Princeton, N.J., to serve the community at large as well as Goucher students and faculty, according to college president Sanford J. Ungar.

"Like the Athenaeum in days of old, it will be a central gathering point where intellectual, cultural and social purposes are all brought together in one place," Ungar said. "My understanding of the Athenaeum of old is that it was the place where you went when you wanted to see people for one reason or another. That's the idea that inspires us."

Other colleges may have components of the Goucher project in different locations, but "we don't know of any campus that has this ... particular mix" of elements in one place, said Nicholas Garrison, design principal for Hillier. "Combining them is what makes it unique."

One of the largest spaces will be the library, which Ungar describes as a "glass book box," but even the library will be different from most. The designers have "blurred the edges" so it will be hard to tell where the library begins and ends.

The goal is to encourage students to get away from the personal computers in their dorm rooms -- one downside of the technology revolution -- and interact with other students by making the library part of a larger area that they'll want to check out several times a day. "It's to make people feel like you don't have to make a special trip to the library," Ungar said.

The forum will be another key gathering spot -- an indoor amphitheater with flexible seating, wireless Internet access and sports bar-like video screens.

It's "a modern day interpretation of what a great public meeting space should be," Garrison said.

Besides showing sports events and music videos, the large screens may be used as a digital storytelling device that will enable students abroad to share experiences with their colleagues back in Maryland.

Ungar is a strong proponent of global awareness, and all Goucher students are required to spend part of their studies abroad. Given that philosophy, "the desire is to make this building so nimble technologically that it becomes a natural connection to global consciousness," Garrison said. "That's the point of the forum -- to connect the kids in Baltimore to the world beyond."

Goucher has raised more than $23 million in cash and pledges to build and operate the Athenaeum and continues to seek donations. It has received $900,000 in federal funds and mostly likely will issue bonds to help finance construction, Ungar said.

The college has spent another $9 million to prepare the campus for construction of the Athenaeum, including relocating a parking lot, realigning portions of its loop road and building another power plant.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski will deliver the keynote speech at the groundbreaking ceremony, which starts at 10:30 a.m. Friday. Mikulski helped Goucher secure the federal funds.

While the architecture has conceptual ties to ancient Greece, the building is no throwback. Hillier designed it to fit with the modernist buildings at the college, which moved to its current location at 1021 Dulaney Valley Road 54 years ago. Exterior materials include Butler stone, glass, wood and copper.

The architects also adopted eco-friendly design strategies, including use of green roofs, high-efficiency mechanical systems and redwood salvaged from old olive barrels. Olive trees can be found all over Greece and are that country's national tree.

"We want a building that will fit in but stand out," Ungar said. "We hope this will be a building, like the Brown Center at [the Maryland Institute College of Art], that will be an attraction in itself."

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