Mills & Chills yield architectural thrills at Bowdoin
Updated: Jun 4
For the past three years, a particular corner of the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, Maine has been of special interest to me.
In the late summer of 2020, I pulled into the parking lot behind the Morrell Gymnasium – historically, very much a back-door section of an otherwise picturesque campus – to drop off my daughter for what would be a pandemic-ravaged travesty of a freshman year. The folks at Bowdoin did their best to be as welcoming and enthusiastic as possible and they even succeeded, but only to a point.
Yes it was very welcoming. But the first order of business was the testing center inside the gymnasium and the next order of business was moving the kid into her dorm without actually being allowed in the dorm. Thus was altered a time-honored ritual for the parents of the college-bound. It was a difficult time.
Returning as often as my daughter would allow me during her first three years at Bowdoin – at first, more or less sneaking onto campus – I noticed, by and by, that half of that bittersweet parking lot had been consumed by a construction site. What was taking shape there? Mills and Chills.
I refer, of course, to Barry Mills Hall – i.e., Mills, the new headquarters of the anthropology department as well as the digital and computer studies program, and Chills – the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies. This dynamic architectural duo has now reached completion and both were open and receiving visitors during the Commencement Weekend just concluded.
Let me make a couple of points at the outset. I did not make up the “Mills and Chills” nickname; I heard it from someone who works at the College who may or may not be striving to make it catch on. I hope it does. More importantly, before turning to the merits of this project it is important to acknowledge how very cool and compelling the construction phase was.
What we have here are buildings that eschewed the customary steel infrastructure and are, instead, the first non-residential buildings in Maine to be framed with mass timber. What’s that? “A mix of glue-laminated timber columns and beams and cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels,” says the College’s web site.
Even if you don’t buy the hypothesis that this reduces the carbon footprint of the new buildings to make a difference, and even if you don’t hope that producing mass timber could help save the forest products industry across the northern forest, from Maine west to the Adirondacks, you would have to admit the skeletons of these two buildings were remarkable and unprecedented sights while still visible on campus.
Lead architect Nat Madson of the Minneapolis-based firm HGA wisely declined to use the mass timber thing as a reason to design something that pays homage to barns or anything else in the New England vernacular that screams “timber framed.” That would have been a move worthy of an outlet mall. Nor are Mills and Chills overly respectful of the restrained campus classicism one typically associates with Bowdoin, although both buildings are clad in brick and give no outward hint of what holds them up. It is, rather, the weird and compelling geometry of each building that should prove to these Bowdoin kids that their school is not the stodgy and overly cautious place they fear the school’s benefactors are always striving to impose on them.
More confessions: I have long had a weakness for both the Bowdoin campus and for architectural projects that yield pairs of buildings. Even Bowdoin’s architectural errors have appeal and charm, such as the ill-fated high-rise dorm, Coles Tower, that was for a while the tallest building north of Boston when completed in 1964 to a design by Hugh Stubbins. You can see that Stubbins was slyly alluding to the historic Monadnock Building in Chicago by Burnham & Root, also 16 stories and still the tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed.
Noteworthy examples of building twins include Wallace K. Harrison’s iconic Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City (my fantasy second home in Chicago), the ill-fated twin towers of the World Trade Center by Minoru Yamasaki, and maybe even that thing in Prague by Frank Gehry commonly referred to as “Fred and Ginger” (though in that case the twins are conjoined as they dance).
Everywhere they are found in the universe, paired objects are the most compelling when non-identical. With their oblique geometry and internally visible mass timber framing, these siblings certainly bear a family resemblance, but Mills plays the role of the elder child (having been dedicated a few weeks earlier than the Gibbons Center). Clad in red brick and forming a new link in the architectural chain that rings campus, it tells the outside world passing by that Bowdoin has not completely lost any sense of tradition and propriety. From viewed from the campus perspective, Mills almost seems to protect or perhaps even nurture its smaller and bolder companion.
Like every kid brother, the Gibbons Center is likely to attract bullies. The College web site
notes that Madson is often asked why he clad the new arctic center in dark grey brick as opposed to making it resemble an iceberg. He offered a somewhat coy answer, noting that images of people and objects in the arctic landscape often look like mysterious silhouettes and, so, he hoped to imbue the Gibbons Center with the same quality.
Okay, but I’d like to offer a more brash and forthright explanation. In form, the Gibbons Center is indeed not unlike an iceberg but a big white object added to the Bowdoin College campus at this juncture in history would have been really, really stupid. Bowdoin has not, and should not, repudiate the official school color – polar bear white – but, just as the school frequently pairs white with black in its graphic identity, there’s something satisfying in a chromatic choice that acknowledges the essential truth that ultimately white and black are the same … by which I mean that both black and white are all of the rainbow colors mixed together.
Or, perhaps, think of it this way. Bowdoin College has two museums on campus. On the western edge of campus is the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, housed in the iconic and neoclassical Walker Art Building designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, & White, completed in 1894. That was just a year after the World’s Columbian Exposition, an orgy of neoclassicism nicknamed the White City, in which McKim, Mead, & White also figured prominently (as, by the way, did Burnham & Root). Now, on the eastern edge of the same campus, Bowdoin’s other museum offers a compelling alternative to the principles underlying the White City.
Madson pointed out that the Gibbons Center has few windows in an effort to protect the objects displayed within from the ravages of sunlight. Given that programmatic reality, creating a building that is a formidably dark object on campus – anything but a big white monument – proclaims to the world that Bowdoin’s take on the polar north has moved beyond the colonialist attitude that prevailed during the era of famed explorers Robert E. Peary (Class of 1877) and Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1898), whose exploits the old museum in Hubbard Hall was created to honor and document.
“The issues are complicated,” declares the web site of the new Peary-MacMillan Museum housed in the Gibbons Center. Yes they are – indeed, they are too complicated to limn here. Suffice it to say that the new iteration of the museum is well worth a visit. The exhibits still document polar exploration but they also honor the region’s indigenous civilization (including its art) and forthrightly examine the motives and objectives of those who have created this public collection in a spot almost halfway between the north pole and the equator. While there, don’t forget to enjoy the mass timber framing that is everywhere visible – give it a knock and confirm how solid and enduring it is.
Linger outside as well. Mills and Chills are beautifully landscaped, the space between them features big slabs of marble suitable for sitting and hanging out, plus some friendly artificial drumlins that playfully challenge the expectation that this notoriously flat campus has no real topography.
The kids at Bowdoin, or at least those I’ve spoken with, are skeptical about all this. They like their college served the traditional way – i.e., as much like Massachusetts Hall, the oldest collegiate building in Maine, as possible. But Massachusetts Hall, though lovely and inviting, is 221 years old (and itself slated for refurbishment to correct its inaccessibility) and a reflection of where building technology and notions of beauty were in 1802. To be worthy of preservation 221 years from now, what Bowdoin builds today must be an authentic expression of today’s technology, today’s values, today’s hopes for a future that is better and more inclusive than the “white city.” In that sense, Barry Mills Hall and the Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies are a worthy reuse of the parking lot where I dropped off my daughter three years ago.
How awesome it was to see the Schooner Bowdoin (actually a model of it) take its rightful place as part of the new arctic museum. I had the pleasure of sailing on the Bowdoin, from St. Michael's, Maryland to Rockland, Maine in 1988 -- a bittersweet voyage that marked the schooner's transfer from the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School to the Maine Maritime Academy. Admiral MacMillan's celebrated gaff-rigged, double-hulled vessel was a comfortable home for what proved to be an unseasonably balmy early November voyage.