Students design art for town’s roundabout

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College students have done some homework for a committee exploring potential centerpieces for the new Main Street roundabout.
The 13 students, enrolled in the college’s spring course “Introduction to Architectural Design,” recently produced a series of intriguing drawings and miniature models of sculptures they believe could fill the roundabout void in an artful and utilitarian manner.
“I think they are trying to get the (creative) juices flowing, hopefully opening the minds of our community members to some of the possibilities,” said Andrea Murray, a professional architect and teacher of the Introduction of Architecture Design course.
The students recently showed their designs to a town committee charged with gathering ideas for a structure to adorn the Main Street roundabout that was created as part of the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project.
The committee has recommended, among other things, that the centerpiece be a prominent — and preferably vertical — public work of art, that it be illuminated at night and be viewable from a safe distance from traffic, that the material used be permanent and durable, and that it visually direct drivers around the roundabout.
It was earlier this year that Centerpiece Committee member and Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Victor Nuovo asked Murray if she would like to turn her students loose on the creative assignment. Murray quickly agreed.
“I try to bring (the students) into our community a little bit, so I look for a project on a real site and an opportunity to interact with local folks,” said Murray, noting the class’s past participation on Middlebury Area Land Trust projects.
“I thought, ‘That could be a great project,’” she said of the centerpiece assignment.
Students officially received their assignment in March. They began researching the appearance of roundabouts worldwide and looking into Middlebury history. History could play a large role in the centerpiece theme, as this year is the 250th anniversary of Middlebury’s town charter.
Students spent around eight weeks on the assignment, receiving guidance from the Centerpiece Committee along the way.
“The committee answered lots of questions and really didn’t want to restrict the students’ creativity, because I think they want the town to see there are all sorts of possibilities,” Murray said.
It’s an assignment the class took very seriously. Students started by building a model of the downtown area so they could get a true, three-dimensional representation of how their designs would interact with surroundings buildings, roads, bridges and green space. They also used computer simulations that placed their sculptures directly on the site.
The students ended up with a wide array of designs, each boasting its own symbolism. They included:
•  A grouping of five arching pillars. The pillars represent, the community, the college, the future, commercial activity and manufacturing activity.
• A monument incorporating a maple leaf perched on a column. The column includes steps representing the future.
• A spiral sculpture featuring old timbers.
• A pen-in-inkwell design, commemorating the signing of the town charter.
• A modernistic sculpture that works with the adjacent power-line infrastructure that could unfortunately not be buried underground due to the expense.
• A square monument perforated by arc-like shapes intended to recognize some of the well-known arches in town, including the Battell Bridge.
• A sculpture made of 25 rings, each representing 10 of the towns 250 years.
• Two separate artificial tree designs, once of which features buds at the end of the branches that light up and twinkle.
Murray explained the class looked at putting real trees at the site but learned that the soil conditions and use of road salt would work against such a plan.
The class formally presented its designs to the Centerpiece Committee early last month to enthusiastic praise.
“I thought three or four of the drawings stood out as really brilliant,” said Nuovo, who also serves as a town selectman.
“It was a very productive (assignment).”
Nuovo added the students could choose to submit their ideas as part of an open competition for the winning design. The Centerpiece Committee has applied for up to $25,000 from the Walter Cerf Foundation to help sort out the details of what will be a public competitive process, Nuovo noted.
Ultimately, the centerpiece is to be funded through grants and donations.
Nuovo hopes the centerpiece can be in place by next year.
In the meantime, there will be a lot of work to do so that the roundabout is fitted with a piece that does the town proud.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Nuovo said. “We want it to be a piece that the town embraces.”
Nuovo continues to hope the centerpiece epitomizes, in some way, Middlebury’s storied past.
“I would like to see it linked to the fact we’ve been around for 250 years,” Nuovo said. “It is remarkable that we have been here, at peace with each other, with virtually the same system of government for 250 years.”
The Middlebury College students’ roundabout designs will be exhibited at the National Bank of Middlebury’s Main Street branch for around a month, beginning on June 6, according to Murray.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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