The renovation of the Commons building—a prominent academic and social hub on campus—transformed what was once a beloved but underutilized space into an active, lively, and sustainable core at the heart of the Bennington College campus. As the centerpiece of the College’s original 1932 Beaux-Arts campus plan, Commons embodied the tradition of Bennington College, and this 45,000 square-foot renovation is the first substantial upgrade to the building since its inception. Throughout the design process, we worked closely with the College leadership, students, faculty, and staff to understand the important role this building played in the College’s identity and heritage, how it was used in the quotidian life of the school, and how it could work better. Then, through a collaborative process involving design charrettes and stakeholder workshops, we built consensus on a series of interventions that would transform the operational efficiency while carrying on the tradition that the building represents.
The renovation of Bennington College Commons is a result of broader research on the campus. In the original 1932 campus plan, Commons defined what was then the College’s northern edge, bookending the campus. It was essentially a one-sided building; its monumental southern façade anchoring the great lawn and flanking colonial houses, while the smaller north wing was an inconsequential service entry for back-of-house operations. Over the course of 80 years of campus development, the college expanded northwards, and Commons became the geographic center of campus – a condition at odds with its original design. Flow remained obstructed both within the building and between the north and south halves of the campus – in stark contrast to the college’s ethos of seamless integration across disciplines.
The renovation resolves this; by opening up a central north-south and east-west passageway through the building, Commons becomes a gateway that joins the two halves of campus and establishes connections between the interior life of the building and the surrounding landscape in all four cardinal directions. A new cantilevered glazed entry on the north side acts as a beacon that guides visitors into the central spine. The design of the entryway transforms a building that was entirely impenetrable into one that is as open and accessible as possible. It reinterprets the building's original Beaux-Arts geometries in a contemporary architectural language, paying homage to the building's heritage while lending it a distinctive new presence.
Through our planning process, we proved to the college that they didn’t need to build a new building to accommodate the current and future needs of the growing campus. As the historic center of both social and academic life, Commons remains the only building at Bennington that combines social areas, study lounges, and classroom space into a single center for learning and student life. As the only place on campus that serves meals, the entire college community – from student to faculty to administrators – convenes at Commons throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As Bennington College expanded, it could no longer adequately serve the growing student body. By activating 12,000 square feet of space that had sat unused for decades due to code restrictions, we reclaimed the original authenticity of the building so that new construction didn’t have to happen. Implementing new mechanical systems and adding new elevators and accessible entryways brought the space up to contemporary standards and allowed us to introduce 16 new classrooms; not least among them the Peer Learning Lab, supporting peer-to-peer instruction, group collaboration, and individual study. Additionally, our renovation expanded the serving capacity of the dining floor from 450 to 1000 without adding to its footprint.
Working within the footprint we were given, the Bennington Commons renovation maintained the building’s unique character and history while modernizing the building conceptually, technologically, and systemically for the present day. Among the central tenets of our design were optimizing natural lighting and providing views and physical access to the outdoors, providing energy-efficient systems, and setting up the building for its future conversion to “net zero” operations. Upgrades to the mechanical systems, new fenestration and vertical openings, and interior programmatic layouts were all designed in relation to these ambitions. New exterior hardscape and walking paths stitch the building into the fabric of the greater campus, making the project site more pedestrian (and bicycle) friendly while extending dining and recreation spaces to the outdoors. Similarly, small adjustments to the site’s grading around the building made entries at multiple levels accessible to the differently-abled.
Our approach addressed the changing needs of the College while still respecting and paying homage to the building’s Beaux-Arts heritage. The renovation is centered around this conversation between old and new; We let the history of the building exist while staying true to our time and design ethos. By taking a sensitive approach to this renovation, we designed a series of interventions that dramatically improved operational efficiency while carrying on the tradition that the building represents. The end result is a building that is as authentic to the twenty-first century as it is to the last. It is a building that embodies the ethos of Bennington College: innovation, inclusivity, and sustainability.
The building itself is cross-disciplinarian in nature – housing classrooms, food, and social activities. Commons is a physical embodiment of the ethos of the college, and the renovation gave them a new way of seeing that.
Christoff:Finio Architecture (C:FA) is a New York-based architecture and design studio led by partners Taryn Christoff and Martin Finio. The projects of the studio are unified by their response to context, culture, and performance goals. Through an energetic and interactive process from conception to completion, C:FA’s approach is rooted in problem-solving. Each project—whether a ground-up building, a comprehensive master plan, a renovation, or an assessment of existing facilities—is seen as an opportunity to enhance the client’s operations by identifying and designing elegant solutions for the specific challenges they face. Working in a contemporary language defined by material expression and exacting attention to detail, C:FA believes that thoughtfully designed spaces engender a sense of pride in their occupants, enhance a building’s ability to function, and embody their clients’ values and mission.