The Future of Neilson: An Interview With President McCartney

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Anya Gruber '16

Associate Editor

President McCartney announced last week that renowned architect Maya Lin has been chosen to direct the renovations of Neilson Library and will work alongside architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch. In an exclusive interview with the Sophian, President McCartney addressed questions and concerns about the library and the logistics behind its renovation.

How will the renovations reconcile old-fashioned character with modern design?

The part of Neilson that was built in 1909 will stay. It’s the additions that are coming down…but it’s to be determined. The architects will be meeting with members of the community, mostly on programming – what belongs inside, what would make this the best library it can be for our community. But there’s no design yet; that’s the fun part.

From where will the funding for the renovations come?

I’m really glad you’re giving me an opportunity to explain the funding model. First of all, we’re not taking any existing funds from existing programs. And the $100 million figure is an approximation; we need to wait for the design before we determine what the cost will be … The students might like to know that Ford Hall cost $73 million to build, and that was quite a while ago. The Campus Center cost $23 million. So how do you fund a new building like this? First of all: fundraising. I think many of our alumnae will be interested in this project, especially with Maya Lin as one of the principals. In fact … last week I was in New York, and someone already pledged one million dollars.  Already, before we even announced Maya Lin. Before we even had a design. We’ll probably take on some debt. Our debt is very low, much lower than most of our peer colleges, so we can afford to take on a little bit of debt. It’s mostly gifts and debt financing. We’re not going to use existing funds, and we’re certainly not going to decrease the financial aid budget. I think the students know there’s nothing more important to me than access; it’s really the number one priority of my presidency, so I’ll continue to work on that. But this isn’t an either/or. I also think it’s really important for us to have a state-of-the-art library so students and faculty and staff can each do their work optimally.

Who will be the main players in this collaboration?

Maya Lin is partnering with Shepley Bulfinch, and they’ve already done some work with the trustees and the community and looking at our libraries. They’ve already done a number of libraries at four other colleges, like Duke. It’s a real collaboration that they’re both excited about, and I think that’s critical to the success of the project … and I think prospective students and current students are going to be really excited about the fact that we have two women principles, Maya Lin and the Shepley Bulfinch president [Carole Wedge].

What do you think Maya Lin in particular will bring to this project?

You know, she is just so inventive. During the interviews, she had so many ideas, especially about how to connect the building with the landscape. And for so many of us on the architect selection committee, this was very appealing. It won’t surprise you why – we have this beautiful campus that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and the campus is a botanic garden…I think there’s that. But really, she just has an idea every minute about what we might do, about what we might want to do. I tweeted yesterday [April 15] that she’s a paradigm shifter, and I think that’s really true. Her Vietnam Memorial changed the way people think about memorials, and she’s actually doing that again. She’s creating her last memorial, and it’s an online memorial called “What’s Missing?” about the disappearance of species. And I think she’s been very inventive in her architecture and her art. She’s also an artist. She creates outdoor pieces, sculpture pieces. She did one at Yale, where she was an undergraduate. It’s a circular piece about the history of women at Yale. So, I think she’ll bring art and artistry, inventiveness and a willingness to collaborate. She stressed over and over again how important it was for her to meet with faculty members and staff on the programming side, so I think there will be wonderful opportunities for students to interact with her when she’s on campus.

And Maya Lin has a personal connection to Smith?

Maya Lin’s mother, Julia Chang Lin ’51, fled communist China [to attend Smith]…And Maya Lin was very clear that this would be a very personal project for her because she has an emotional connection to Smith through her mother. In fact, she said it would mean the world to her mother to know that she is working on this project. She said she wished her mother was alive for the announcement [because] she would have been so proud. And I think it’s wonderful, for me, to know that we’re working with an architect who has an emotional connection with Smith, and it’s not just another commission. It was very clear to me from the beginning that Maya Lin really wanted this commission.

What changes will be made to the special collections, such as the Mortimer Rare Book Room?

I think our special collections will be at the heart of this new library. I think they’re so important for scholarship generally, and we also have scholars from all over the world who come to use our special collections.

How will the new Neilson transform Smith?

Every now and again, an institution like ours designs and builds a building that becomes a destination, and cities do this too; Seattle built a library, [and] when you go to Seattle, everyone says, “Go to the library,” so I went. And when you go to Phillips Exeter Academy, and everyone says, “Go to the library” because Louis Kahn designed it. So I think the idea is to build a building like that for Smith. Northampton already has quite a bit of tourism, and I’m quite certain that tourists will be interested in seeing this amazing building. I think it will be a point of pride for the entire Smith community…This is a library that is going to last for generations.