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A glass and light celebration of the humanities

The Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis University. The glass walls draw as much light as possible into the building. The Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis University. The glass walls draw as much light as possible into the building. (Mike Lovett)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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WALTHAM — Brandeis University and its Waltham campus always bring to mind the wonderful word “discombobulated.’’ On a lovely rocky, rolling site, buildings of many sizes, shapes, and styles seem to be strewn more or less at random, like floating wreckage after an ocean disaster.

The result is a campus with its own kind of libertarian charm. The mad diversity of the architecture, along with the landscape of a zillion nooks and crannies, becomes a metaphor for the diversity of students and their interests.

Architecture always speaks a message, and what this campus tells us is that there’s no master planner, no dominating tradition. You’re on your own.

How do you put a new building into a setting like that? Do you just invent another new shape?

Not in the case of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, the latest addition to the Brandeis campus. It’s fascinating to see how this new building deals with the DNA of this quirky place. Whatever it does, it does with a reason. Nothing is arbitrary. It derives an architectural logic from the way it relates to its site, to its neighbors, and to the program of activities it houses within its walls. Once you understand it, the building feels inevitable.

Mandel was designed by the architect Michael McKinnell of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, the Boston firm that long ago gave us Boston City Hall. The principal donor was the Mandel Philanthropic Foundation of Cleveland. Construction cost was a frugal $20 million.

For starters, Mandel is a building with an interesting purpose. The study of humanities is out of fashion today. I’ve seen predictions that 80 percent of the jobs of the future will require math or physics. College students majoring in the humanities have shrunk by more than half since 1970. TV comics joke about English majors as the nation’s future waiters.

Mandel takes the opposite view. It celebrates the humanities. It’s a mixing bowl, bringing scholars from every branch of that field to meet and mix with one another. To house them, Mandel provides an array of spaces, including a 90-seat lecture hall, classrooms and seminar rooms, social areas, and offices. As much as possible, all the spaces open out to one another to foster social contact.

Another purpose of Mandel is to proclaim, visually, the presence of the humanities in the university. The building is sited at the highest point of hilly Brandeis, in an area that in the past was regarded as somewhat remote from the campus center. Mandel’s boldest feature is a four-story glass front wall, hoisted like a sail or a banner above the university. We’re here, says the architecture. Mandel’s lecture hall, sheathed in gray slate, thrusts forward from the rest of the building like a handshake.

Still another purpose is to make the most of the sun. That glass wall faces south, taking advantage of its hilltop site in two ways: It offers a view over most of the campus, and it draws as much light as possible into the building. Everything indoors feels splashed with sunlight. The glass, of course, is of a type that limits the passage of heat and cold.

Light is everywhere. The corridors end in windows that frame views of trees. A delightful light sculpture, regularly reprogrammed with a different mix of ever-changing colors, animates the air of the entrance lobby. Even the lecture hall has a wall of windows. Dark, windowless lecture rooms are the legacy of the dying technology of slide projection. With today’s media, they’re obsolete. The windows help make the lecture hall Mandel’s best space.

Any university does two opposite things. In its libraries and lecture rooms, it hoards the wisdom of the past. In its labs and seminar rooms, it helps invent the wisdom of the future. Ideally, the architecture of a university should be emblematic of both those goals. It should remind us of a valued past while promising a better future.

Mandel works hard to achieve that goal. Around back, on the other side from the glass front, Mandel faces a group of older buildings. These are structures designed in the 1960s by a fine architect of that era, Benjamin Thompson. They’re durable buildings, with muscular concrete frames and solid brick walls. On the façade where Mandel faces these older buildings, its principal material is no longer glass. It’s red brick. The brick is a nod of respect from a new building to its older neighbors.

Mandel is thus an attempt, a successful one, to say that although it’s fresh and inventive and looking to the future, it isn’t a fancy new sculptural object the architect has dreamed up on a computer screen. Its architecture is a response to the demands of setting and purpose.

Some will say the building is too aggressive, too bold a new shape for a suburban campus. Others will probably say it’s too ordinary. Mandel is trying to balance those extremes. In my view, it pulls off that feat with a beguiling mix of effrontery and courtesy.

Here’s an irony. I mentioned that architect McKinnell and his partner Gerhard Kallmann were the designers of Boston City Hall. Glassy Mandel has arrived at just the moment when some younger architects are falling in love with the massive concrete architecture of buildings like City Hall, a style sometimes called Brutalist but now being renamed “Heroic.’’

McKinnell once said of City Hall, mocking his own youthful self, “If I could have, I would have made the light switches out of concrete.’’ Now, while he flies his banner of glass and light above Brandeis, the heavier manner he long ago abandoned may be coming back into fashion. In the endless dance of architectural styles, opposites sometimes meet and match.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.