Residence Halls Dedication Speech: Professor Char Miller
This speech was delivered on October 1, 2011, at the dedication of Pomona Hall and Sontag Hall, Pomona's two newest residence halls. Read more and view photos from the dedication program.
Good Afternoon. My name is Char Miller, and I am the director of the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College. On behalf of my colleagues and students, I am delighted to add our deep thanks to the donor families for their generosity and commitment.
And to thank them for helping to construct a pair of dorms that, for those of us of a certain age, are more than a little mind-boggling. Included in that group is anyone who graduated in the previous century (and those who, like me, have a hard time recalling exactly when they graduated!).
Let me put it this way: if cinder-block construction was the height of your dorm’s fashion, then these well-appointed buildings are almost incomprehensible. If a thin coat of institutional-bland paint was slapped on your dorm room’s walls, then surely it is baffling that a residential hall can even have a color scheme.
So, yes, color me (and us) green with envy.
That’s the right hue in another sense: these buildings could not be greener, more technically sweet, or more sustainable. Rooted in the physical landscape, they will also make an essential contribution to the human ecology of this academic community.
You have a flyer that lists some of their more remarkable attributes. I want to point out one that, I confess, speaks to my inner wonk: stormwater control. Hardly as sexy as the array of solar panels; lacking the cachet of the green roof and garden; not nearly as cool as the energy efficiencies that are built into the halls’ every design element—nonetheless, the stormwater system is arguably more revolutionary than any of these other features.
To understand why, imagine a single raindrop hurtling down during one of our furious late-winter storms. The moment it hits the ground, according to those who have engineered the LA basin since the late nineteenth-century, it should be captured as quickly as possible behind a dam or in a ditch or culvert, then swiftly channeled into the concrete-lined Santa Ana, San Gabriel, or Los Angeles rivers before being flushed ignominiously into the sea.
This complex system, designed to prevent flooding, severely limits the capacity of nature to replenish regional water supplies—a loss for which we have compensated by expropriating snowmelt from as far away as the northern Rockies.
Sontag and Pomona dormitories offer a much smarter approach. Any precipitation that falls within, or flows through, their catchment area will be retained on site, and filtered down to a large underground detention basin in the Wash south of Sixth Street; there it will slowly percolate into the alluvial-formed aquifer, recharging the Pomona Valley’s groundwater. These buildings thus have established a new standard in water management in the greater region, benefiting and befitting their environment.
Yet will they be as integrative as human habitats? How will generations of students occupy these dorms and make them their own? How will they respond to buildings that teach sustainability every they open a window, and but that also require their active participation to insure its realization?
These are some of the questions my students and I have been wrestling with this past week as we read Alain de Botton’s compelling book, The Architecture of Happiness (2006). Among his suggestive insights is this gem:
"Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places—and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be."
We won’t know whether Sontag and Pomona halls are serving this beneficent function until we study how these buildings are used, how they are reimagined through the students’ daily interactions with them. (Though one wag has offered this early critique, dubbing them “upper-class housing where lonely seniors go to graduate”!)
Examining this range of possibilities—hopeful, hypothetical or hyperbolic—is a pair of EA seniors who currently are writing theses on the new dorms’ social dynamics and structural innovations, and the interplay between them.
Their work, when combined with three other theses assessing different aspects of the relationship between Pomona’s built landscape and its lived reality, will deepen our understanding of how this campus actually functions for those who call it home.
There is another reason why the logistics and operations of these edifices must be interrogated. This college has asserted that sustainability is integral to its modern mission. One mark of its commitment has been the establishment of a Sustainability Integration Office, so brilliantly led by Bowen Close (EA ’06).
As such, it is incumbent on us to measure the steps we have taken to fulfill our convictions. That’s why we must turn the intellectual tools and analytical methodologies that we teach in our classrooms on the very buildings in which so many abide and work.
This is not just an academic exercise. Whatever the results, they will help us better calibrate our capacity to sustain ourselves on this planet of swelling population and finite resources.
It is important to note, as well, that these probing analyses of sustainability as fact and fancy--like the munificence of the donor families we are honoring today--is fully consistent with, indeed is ineluctably linked to, Pomona College’s century-old charge to its graduates:
"They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind."
With the Sontag and Pomona dorms, we are trying to redeem that historic pledge.