Calvin’s original 1959 master plan for the Knollcrest campus envisioned it as a “partially-cloistered academic world” for the college’s community of Christian scholars. Nearly 60 years later, Calvin is in the process of developing a new master plan, which will provide guidance for campus development over the next 20 to 30 years. Just as it did in 1959, creating an optimal environment for Christian scholarship tops the plan’s priority list. But that optimal academic environment looks a lot different in 2015 than it did in 1959.
For one thing, it isn’t a cloister.
An ideological shift
“The original design principles for Calvin’s campus have a cloistered focus,” explained Lee Hardy, philosophy professor and master plan steering committee member. “That really doesn’t represent our orientation anymore—now Calvin’s much more focused on engaging the world and being open and welcoming.”
Today, Calvin educates students from all over the world. Only 36 percent of those students are Christian Reformed. But in 1959, almost all of Calvin’s students were Christian Reformed, and more than a third were from Grand Rapids. While preparing its students to be agents of renewal on earth has always been Calvin’s educational goal, these students weren’t always encouraged to interact with the world outside of Calvin before graduation.
“The original master plan was incredibly inward-focused because it was a time when Calvin was more homogenous,” noted Craig Hanson, art history professor and master plan steering committee member. “Calvin wasn’t ideologically oriented toward engaging a diverse world outside the CRC community. We’re obviously in a very different place now.”
“The original guiding principles for the master plan talked about Calvin being a place of refuge—a place where one can study and not be too affected by what’s going on in the world,” added Phil Beezhold, the physical plant director and co-chair of the steering committee. “Calvin’s focus now is on engaging the world, so with this new plan, we want to be more welcoming, more outwardly focused and more connected to the city of Grand Rapids.”
Addressing concerns, planning ahead
In addition to opening up Calvin’s cloistered campus, the new master plan—the first major master planning effort Calvin has undertaken since 1997—will address concerns about sustainability, the disconnect between the two sides of campus separated by the East Beltline, outdated academic spaces and a lack of student gathering areas on campus. These issues emerged as priorities through a workshop process that began this fall and continues into the spring.
David Wunder, engineering professor and co-chair of the steering committee, explained why Calvin chose this year to form the new master plan: “Usually a master plan happens every 10 or 15 years, so based on where we’ve been recently with planning, it makes sense for where we are as a campus. We’re looking back 60 years, but also looking back 15 years. We’d also just completed a strategic plan, which included a line item focused on the development of a master plan.”
“I have heard a handful of questions about why, in the midst of financial pressures, we’re spending money to produce a master plan,” added Hanson. “And I think a master plan is exactly the right thing to do—because planning ahead keeps you from making costly mistakes.”
A fresh set of eyes
Seeking an evaluation of the campus through a completely fresh set of eyes, Calvin selected Ayers Saint Gross, a Boston firm that has never worked with the college before, to produce the new master plan.
Architects from Ayers Saint Gross descended on Calvin’s campus for the first master plan workshop in September. Over the course of two days, the architects met with more than 300 people from approximately 25 campus organizations to discuss ways in which Calvin could make better use of its physical space.
In October, the architects returned to campus to share their findings from the previous visit and get feedback from the steering committee about the direction of the plan. The architects most recently met with the steering committee in November, when they presented an initial concept plan based on the information they’d gleaned about the campus from the first two workshops.
This spring, the steering committee and architects will hold two more workshops: one centered on short-term (0–5-year) plans for the campus and one on long-term plans. The firm will present a draft of the master plan to the board of trustees in May. Pending approval from the board, the final plan will be published in June.
Building a student union
It is too early in the process to confirm any specific projects that will be part of the master plan. However, concept drawings propose adding a student union that would connect the library to the bridge. This would physically tie together the east and west sides of campus.
“The idea would be to raze the Commons Annex and relocate all the functions currently housed there in the student union,” Wunder said, “but also provide additional space for student organizations, probably dining options and student services to a certain extent. It would provide needed gathering space for students and also serve as a welcoming center for alumni or visitors, working as an additional face to the campus.”
Opening up the cloister
Having the student union as a clear entrance point to the campus is just one of the proposed renovations that would work toward making Calvin’s campus more welcoming. For example, the plan might address the closed-off orientation of Calvin’s buildings.
“When you come to campus, you are often confronted with the back end of the buildings,” Hardy noted. “So it’s not a very welcoming way to present the campus to visitors. It would be nice to have more attractive outward faces on the buildings.”
Hardy also brought up the lack of signage and multiple entrances on buildings as problems visitors encounter: “Once you get inside campus, it’s very hard to figure out where things are and to give directions because there isn’t clear signage, and every building has multiple entrances. The master plan might involve adding better signage, and even rethinking some of the building entrances.”
While Calvin’s suburban location can make it challenging to stay connected to the city of Grand Rapids, the committee is also looking at a few ways to integrate the college into the city. There is even discussion about a possible commercial district within walking distance of Calvin’s campus.
“Students talk about wanting to be able to walk to a commercial district that’s off campus but still only five or six minutes away. So there’s discussion about whether the college could work with developers to make something like that,” Hanson explained. “It would solve what to do with the people living off campus—if they had a few hours between classes they could walk to Starbucks or Panera. It would also be a way in which Calvin students would be meeting the world outside—meeting the neighborhood.”
It may be a few years before there’s a commercial district within walking distance of Calvin. But Beezhold could begin implementing the sustainability measures in the master plan as early as this spring.
“I think we could start addressing some of the landscape issues—putting in rain gardens, for instance,” he said.
The rain gardens would help soak up and filter stormwater, bringing Calvin closer to independent stormwater management, one of the long-term goals Beezhold hopes to see fulfilled with this plan. And he isn’t alone. According to Wunder, interest in improving Calvin’s sustainability as a campus was in all the focus groups: “The level of concern and interest around sustainability during the initial stages of conversation [for the master plan] was uniform. I think, as we move forward, we’re going to prioritize finding the sweet spot between sustainable practices we can afford, but also wise use of environmental resources.”
Although sustainability as we understand it now didn’t exist in 1959, nature did factor into William Fyfe’s plan for the campus. Fyfe, an architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the original master plan for Calvin’s Knollcrest campus.
“One of the sort of ironies is that, this focus on the beauty of the landscape really was there in the beginning with Fyfe’s plan,” Hanson observed, “but in all kinds of other ways, the environment and issues of sustainability mean something different in 2015 than they did back then. It’s interesting to think about what it means to be a responsible academic community in terms of footprint.”
Connecting the campus
In order to both foster sustainable plant growth and create more continuity between the two sides of campus, Calvin may extend the natural beauty of the nature preserve to the west side of campus. Beezhold is particularly excited about this possibility.
“I really like the idea of more naturalized landscaping, and that continuity could really help with the disconnect that exists between the two sides of campus,” Beezhold said.
Important as sustainability and connecting the campus are, ultimately, just as they did in 1959, the academic spaces remain the top priority in this master plan.
Putting learning spaces first
Before the current master planning process, annual budgets allocated scarce resources for classroom renovation. Consequently, many of the classrooms on Calvin’s campus haven’t been updated since they were first built. For the oldest classrooms in Hiemenga Hall, that was 60 years ago.
“The quality of our classroom space is definitely a priority,” Hardy said. “We need to bring all our classrooms up to a certain standard—to make them capable of handling available technologies and to create flexible space that lends itself not just to lecture but to group work.”
Maintaining the classrooms will continue to be a priority for Calvin after completion of the master plan, according to Wunder. To ensure that the classrooms keep up with the times from now on, Calvin has formed a new committee devoted to maintaining them.
Another academic space that will likely see an upgrade: the library.
“Increasingly, a library is understood as mediating and managing information and inculcating research skills,” Hanson reflected. “Much of it takes place in people’s dorm rooms now, but some of that still happens in a physical library space. For instance, if the goal is developing research skills, that’s increasingly a social activity, so maybe you’re building spaces that facilitate social gathering. That’s different than just a lot of shelves of books, but there’s still a physical component to it. Personally, I still see the library as being an anchor of the commons physically.”
Honoring our history
Hanson said that, like the library, the rest of Calvin’s campus may be changing, but it isn’t giving up its essence: “We are no longer the sort of organic, prairie-style place that Bill Fyfe originally laid out. But Bill Fyfe’s plan was non-confrontational. There was a spirit of peace about his plan, and I think that spirit still lives on. I think that’s a way we can embody the original plan, even as we work to make the campus more diverse and welcoming.”
Studying Fyfe’s original plan with the benefit of hindsight has given the committee a strong sense of responsibility for the decisions they make about the current master plan.
“A lot of the guiding principles that were published back in 1959 clearly informed the way the campus looks today, so we’re mindful of the fact that some of the decisions we make now could have a big impact on the way the campus looks in the future,” Wunder said.
However, as long as Calvin doesn’t attempt to erase the work of those who shaped the campus in the past, Hanson is optimistic that the direction in which the planning process is going is the right one: “There’s a sense that whatever you have in a plan like this, it’s part of a layered history. You can certainly revise and adapt for a world that has changed. But the moment at which you begin to destroy the layers beneath, that’s when a master plan goes wrong. I don’t think that’s what we’re doing at all. And that’s why I’m excited about it.”
Grace Ruiter is a recent Calvin graduate and a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.