The New Neilson: Maya Lin and Carole Wedge Discuss Their Visions for the Library Renovations

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 President McCartney moderated a conversation with architects Maya Lin and Carole Wedge. Anya Gruber '16 Associate Editor Maya Lin, a renowned architect famous for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City, came to speak at Smith last Wednesday, Sept. 16 about her preliminary ideas and vision for the renovations of Neilson Library. She will be designing alongside architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch, one of the oldest firms in the nation. Carole Wedge, president of Shepley Bulfinch, was also present at the talk to share her perspective on the renovations. President Kathleen McCartney opened with an introduction of Lin and Wedge and touched on her hope that Neilson will become the centerpiece of Smith’s campus. “The new Neilson library will be a destination site for the campus and for the wider world,” President McCartney said. Lin did not provide a detailed design plan for the new Neilson but discussed major themes that run throughout her works and what may be in store for Neilson. Adaptive reuse is a major characteristic of Lin’s art and architecture, as she has transformed a number of dilapidated areas in cities into usable parks. Lin predicted that this habit of hers will likely manifest itself in the redesigned Neilson. “The dance between materials – stone, wood, glass, steel…is very on par with what we’ll [do] here,” Lin said. “We’ve begun to look at some of the foundation walls and found some brick, [and] some of them are old-fashioned concrete rubble,” added Lin, “so that materiality will be a palette that I’ll work with.” Lin’s habit of recycling materials ties into one of her most characteristic aesthetic qualities. “I’m extremely in love with the juxtaposition of old and new,” said Lin, who, in the past, has converted old brick buildings into modern masterpieces while maintaining the integrity of the original structure. “I love the old New England stone walls,” she added, citing them as an inspiration in her architecture. Another theme common in Lin’s architecture is her attention to the flow between a building and its surroundings. She spoke to her fascination with a building’s relationship with the landscape and was critical of the wings added to Neilson in 1982. “The extensions that have happened in Neilson have…pushed out and, in a way, have just strangled, or suffocated, the heart of your campus,” said Lin, “so it’s a matter of pulling back and giving it room to breathe, still making an architectural statement but pulling back enough so that Wright and the gymnasium and the center of campus comes back to life.” Lin is deeply invested in environmentalism and is thus concerned with making the new Neilson a “green” building. When a member of the audience asked about the possibility of birds colliding into large glass panels, Lin was sympathetic to the problem and discussed ways she could avoid bird deaths caused by her architecture. After Lin spoke, she joined a discussion with Wedge moderated by President McCartney. Wedge has a significant amount of experience in working with libraries and spoke to what makes a library forward-thinking and suitable for today’s world. “I think there are a lot of examples of buildings where all of the seats are exactly uniform, as if everyone who works in that building is the same,” said Wedge, “so I think forward-thinking libraries look at the diversity of spaces, the diverse ways that people are working together, how students are working, how libraries are participating in teaching and sort of understanding that [libraries are] a microcosm of the whole campus and honoring that.” The plans for the library renovations are still in their infant stages, but Wedge and Lin have solid ideas of what’s in store. As Lin said, “This is just the beginning.”