An Open Black Box

Editor’s Note: This article should be read in full. Please take a copy of the paper with you if you can’t read it all in one sitting, but the reader should have the context of the article in its entirety.
One of the most fundamental changes to Olin in recent history is the impending Academic Center redesign project to rebuild The Shop and the Design Studios. It is the first time since Olin’s the campus was initially completed that any heavy construction work will take place, and it marks a huge milestone for the college. Because Olin’s curriculum was essentially created after the buildings, there was limited opportunity to use a developed academic philosophy to influence the campus’ design decisions. We have now learned enough about ourselves, our goals, and our needs to justify reconstruction, as well as intelligently and productively redesign key sections of our campus to better serve our community. Therefore, it is critical that we employ all the resources and knowledge we have accumulated over the last twenty years to ensure that we create the best product possible. This is an amazing project with enormous potential. Its success is critical to the development of the college, and it needs to set the right precedents for the future.
In the course of my efforts to learn more about the AC redesign, I met with Aaron Hoover, Lawrence Neely, Steve Hannabury, Russ Zacharias, members of the Shop staff, and a number of students. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who were gracious enough to speak with me. Our discussions have been insightful and invaluable. I appreciate your time and openness.
In the interest of brevity, I will be focusing on some of the key points and trends I noticed during these discussions, which I feel it would be beneficial for the entire Olin Community to be aware of.
For context, here is a brief history of this redesign project. The concept of an AC 1/Design Studio redesign was first conceived of almost 3 years ago as part of a proposed “menu of projects” that could be presented to donors in an effort to bring more concreteness to—among other things—the concept of “curriculum innovation,” for which the college was seeking funding. During the summer of 2016, the faculty design teams for the two project spaces had their first meeting with architects to develop a preliminary design.
After the completion of the initial design, the project was shelved for nearly a year, until the necessary funding could be obtained. After several failed attempts to gain outside financial backing, the Olin Board of Trustees agreed to fund the project personally. By July of 2017, there was enough money pledged to ensure the project could move forward, and work began anew. At this point, the faculty and staff stakeholders met with architects again to reconfirm the specifications for the spaces involved in the redesign. This led to the project presentation at the September Town Hall shortly after.
What this boils down to is that the design work was primarily carried out by faculty based on their experiences in the spaces and knowledge of student experiences. The role of Steve Hannabury and Facilities is to manage the project logistics and deliver what faculty have asked for.
I dove into this article holding many of the same concerns as the rest of the student body. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that a number of my concerns and those of my peers are the symptoms of Olin’s communication system and not the core design of the project. At its heart, this is a sound project and the next logical step in Olin’s development. It identifies some of the simplest and most effective ways we can further our institutional goals and expand experimentation in our curriculum. It gives us real Shop facilities, not some classrooms with machines crammed into them, as well as a midsize space for studio classes and other workshop events. Both of these resources are ones that students, staff, and faculty alike have lamented over for some time, and we are finally making those dreams a reality.
My positive opinion of the concept of the project is not held by large sections of the Olin community. I am going to attempt to explain why this is the case, possible ways of improving public opinion, and why I believe so strongly that this project will have a significant positive impact on Olin College.
While I hope this statement is redundant, I feel the need to state outright that my intentions here are to offer my observances for purely constructive purposes. I neither wish to attack nor defame, and I maintain a steadfast desire to bring about the best end result possible. With that in mind, here are my key discoveries regarding the AC redesign.
One of the most essential components of a successful large-scale project is an effective communication network. This is something that Olin has generally struggled to develop. Because of Olin’s population size, hearsay and the grapevine have normally sufficed for the transmission of information. I will not say more on that here. That is a discussion for another day. A primary concern surrounding this project is the lack of readily available information for the Olin community regarding the process of completing this project, its progress, and how those efforts will impact life at Olin.
A persistent example of the need for more active dispersion of information is the frequent readdressing of Large Project Building (LPB) access during the spring semester. Because of the lack of a unified communication system, information regarding LPB access has been transmitted singularly through the grapevine. As a result, fact has been repeatedly mixed with gossip, resulting in persistent student concern and action based on incorrect information.
The project leaders have marveled at how their information could be so misconstrued, one even remarking “We have no idea where [students] get these ideas. It never crossed our radar to close the LPB. It would be impossible.” Because of the lack of unified communication, students have no way of knowing this without asking project leaders personally. This is neither the fault of the students nor the project leaders. It is simply a current norm of life at Olin. Furthermore, the problem extends to all sections of the Olin community which lack a constant direct path to project leadership. The continuing use of the grapevine as the primary communication system unnecessarily exposing the project to potential delays, convolution, and the need to answer repeated questions from panicked community members who “heard something,” simply because they have no more valid or trustworthy source of information.
Examples such as LPB access have already begun to crop up, and as the project continues to ramp up, there are guaranteed to be more. It is therefore essential that we establish a regular, official communication channel between all community members and the project leaders, to ensure the community has up to date information and a place to turn where questions, comments, and concerns can be addressed in an official capacity.
Another reason there are so many concerns held among the students surrounding this project is that there is a huge difference in perception of the project between the project’s inner circle and the rest of the community, a gap I am attempting to bridge here in part. This is both the result of the communication rift described above as well as the manner in which information surrounding the project has been brought to the public. Students and other community members have been exposed to the project in a very literal way. We have been told what physically is happening to the spaces, but the intent behind those changes has not been adequately addressed.
The redesign will do much more than simply create an Olin Zoo of Engineering for people to press their noses against. However, this was how community members outside of the project’s inner circle defined their perception of the project’s goals. In my discussions with the project leaders, I got a very different picture. They characterized the project as the creation of a platform to empower innovation, which we can organically build off of as time goes on. By building a space with as few permanent fixtures as possible, it can be easily and quickly reconfigured for whatever purpose it must fulfill, adding great versatility. The space will also allow for new opportunities to be explored which were not previously possible simply due to our space constraints. In short, it is designed to broaden our opportunities for experimentation and ease the flow of creativity which has in some ways been stifled by our campus’ design. It is not the end. It is a springboard toward an exciting new beginning with wondrous possibility.

This focus on designing a blank space conducive to experimentation is what I am referring to as the “Empty Box Mindset.” Essentially, the modus operandi of the design team is to create a space, fully flesh out the construction designs, and when that design is complete, move on to think specifically about the usage details of the spaces. While this mindset has allowed the project to progress quickly and remain on schedule up to this point, it has also given the somewhat correct impression that the construction design was made in a vacuum, due to the lack of formal consideration of potential space use cases in the final construction design phase. There is also evidence to suggest that this mentality is a key reason for the lack of student involvement at this stage of the project.
One argument I was presented with for the lack of student inclusion was that the project leaders did not want to waste people’s time by making them suffer through useless meetings and that instead, they were employing a more nimble system of convening necessary people on an as-needed basis. This is merely a possible explanation, not a justification. While this is an honorable goal and an extremely sound practice, it does not justify the exclusion of what can be safely argued is the spaces’ largest user group. So far as I have discovered, there is no sound argument for the exclusion of the student body from this process, simply because students are such a major user group in both spaces.
I had prepared a long-winded explanation on the merits of co-design, but then I realized something. Any reader of this article who is remotely familiar with the Olin curriculum should also be aware of our fervent advocation for the practice of co-design and solicitation of user feedback in our classes. It is a cornerstone technique of Olin design philosophy, found on some level in nearly all Olin design courses. It is disquieting to not see it put into practice on our own campus, regardless of how “empty” the box supposedly is meant to be at this stage.

There are individuals—both inside and outside project leadership—at work attempting to rectify this oversight. However, at this juncture, that point is essentially moot with respect to the construction phase. Given the tight timeline of the project, we must move forward if we still plan to complete the construction in the summer of 2018, which is non-negotiable at this point. We must continue to make the most well-informed decisions we can, using all the resources at our disposal. I have it on good authority that there are plans being developed to have students play a much more active role in “filling the box.” What that actually means has not yet been defined. Once the budgetary constraints become more palpable, our design flexibility will become clearer, and this section of the project will come into more focus.
**Note: I am about to do something incredibly dangerous. I am going to provide in clear terms what I have determined to be the answer to a question on many of the project leaders’ minds: why are the students not more excited about the project? Again, since the construction design phase is nearly complete, the answer to the question is essentially irrelevant from a practical perspective. Nonetheless, I firmly believe it is still worthy of state, if for no other reason than to prevent repetition of these events in the future. This will be blunt and direct but based in fact. I ask that readers keep in mind that I write these words while still wholeheartedly believing in the mission of this project and with the pure motivation of bettering Olin College, not damaging it. I also ask that if you proceed beyond this point, you remain with me to the end.**
During my discussions, members of the project team said they were “surprised that students were not more excited about the project.” This difference between expectation and reality is the perfect argument as to why student involvement in the design process would have been beneficial. Students would have been excited about the project if it had not been handed down to them. We love Olin and we want to make a difference and do our part to make Olin everything that we know it can be, everything that it was advertised to us as being when we decided to come here in the first place. Because of the lack of student involvement up until now, those students with a vested interest in the project have felt frustrated and disregarded.
There is an expectation among students, which was established with the college itself, that Olin will be uniquely student-centered and handle major decisions differently than other institutions. Students expect decision-makers to take stock in their viewpoints, especially when the changes affect students directly. We trust that this agreement to cooperate will be held up, and that agreement was violated. By extension, students’ trust in Olin’s administration was violated.
In excluding students from this phase of development, Olin has just set an extremely dangerous precedent of disregarding community input in critical decisions. We expect Olin to be better than that. At this stage in the process, there is nothing that can reasonably be done to repair this in the context of this current project. The construction drawings are already being drafted. All we can do is push forward and learn. That is what we do best at Olin after all. We make decisions, evaluate their outcomes, learn from them, and hopefully make better decisions the next time.
Despite the missteps this project has taken, it is crucial that we keep one thing in mind. Robyn Goodner, our instructor of design and fabrication sums it up well. We must “actively assume best intentions [of the project leaders], because [the intentions] are there.” There is no malicious intent here. Even though our natural instinct to vilify people whose decisions we may not agree with might say otherwise. We are all on the same team and are working toward a common goal: to better the college and the experiences community members have here. This project is not the end-all-and-be-all, nor was it meant to be. Olin lives on experimentation and iteration, and it only functions if community members take an active role in ensuring its success. So I issue a challenge to each of you who are reading my words.
I urge you to not be satisfied with the explanations that I have presented here. I put this article together in a week. There is so much more that can and should be done. If this project is one that concerns you, interests you or even kindles your idle curiosity, then I implore you to dig into it for yourselves. Ask questions that are important to you, draw your own conclusions, create your own insights, and challenge your preconceptions, including those generated by this article. I welcome it. We must not simply sit back and watch the process unfold or, even worse, allow ourselves to stew in silent frustration. Take the mantle of action upon yourself.
During our discussions, both Aaron Hoover and Lawrence Neeley expressed interest in speaking with students and knowing more of the student perspective regarding this project. If you would like to learn more or take a more active role, I recommend starting by contacting them. As the spring semester progresses, there will be an increasing number of opportunities for community members to influence this project. Take advantage of them, create opportunities where you think they could or should exist, and if nothing else, take some time to think about this project, what it means to you, or what you would like to see these spaces become. It is that community initiative which makes Olin work and that dedication to improvement which makes Olin great. Let us embody those virtues and employ them to preserve, defend, and display our values as a community.
I may still maintain some of the same concerns that I did when I started the journey to write this article. However, I am optimistic about the future. I have gained a new perspective. I now see that this project is not simply a monument to remain unchallenged and untouched but rather another step in the process, another piece of the ever-developing puzzle that is the Olin philosophy. It is another chance for us to do things differently, to do things better. Make no mistake, they will be better. While I look forward to seeing the new spaces themselves, I’m much more excited to know what comes after, what manifests because of these changes, who is inspired by these new resources and what possibilities these new spaces bring to Olin. I look forward to playing my part, and I long to see what we create.

 

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