April 1, 2004

Architect Recounts Africana Center Project

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In August 2002, the Aarris Architecture firm won the open bid for the contract to renovate and reinvent the Africana Center and was beginning to design a building it felt would do the Africana department justice. In mid-May the next year, the contract was canceled by Cornell and Aarris was replaced by Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, leaving Aarris founder and principal Nicole Hollant-Denis ’89 feeling used and duped by the school she loved.

“It almost closed our company,” said Hollant-Denis, of the extra hours and missed opportunities that resulted from her firm taking on the Africana contract.

In April 2002, the need for an overhaul to the Africana Center had become readily apparent. At that time, Prof. James Turner, founder and director of graduate studies for Africana, told The Sun that the center had nonexistent air conditioning, heating and boiler problems, insufficient office space for faculty, cramped library space and crowding due to increasing numbers of students visiting the center. In addition, structural work was needed, but ignored by a University that many at the center felt had its own priorities which didn’t include their building on the edge of campus and outside the average student’s routine.

A search committee was formed and a tentative budget wavering between two and three million dollars was announced for the project.

At the same time, Turner also envisioned that the project would be an opportunity for African-American architects to break into the “racially exclusive” field of current campus architects.

“We’d like to see African-American architects have a shot at [making a proposal],” she said.

Hollant-Denis’ firm successfully pitched their proposal and won the bid.

“We were very pleased to join with the university architects in the joint selection of this firm, and the fact that Ms. Hollant was an alum made it so much nicer,” said Turner, praising the University’s effort in bringing in a diverse group of faculty and administrators to select the winning team.

From the beginning, however, she was concerned with the contract the University offered, which had a “termination without cause” clause. Hollant-Denis tried to argue the clause out, but the University was adamant about it, she said.

“We negotiated for over a month and finally they said, take it or leave it.”

Aarris accepted tthe contract despite their reservations and began. “At the start of the project we noticed that the contract was unrealistic. The proposed budget was not nearly enough to support the new program requirements,” Hollant-Denis wrote in a memo to the Board of Trustees.

At the time, the project budget for the work was $1.6 million, which was raised after a favorable review, but not high enough to pay for the amount of construction the University desired, according to Hollant-Denis.

“We were asked to design a project much larger than the budget. It wasn’t going to happen,” she said. Despite this setback, Aarris submitted a new proposal that, according to an independent firm they hired, would meet the budget.

Also during the early planning, the team ran into trouble with the project manager.

“I felt [he] really almost didn’t know what he was doing. He couldn’t give basic information to us,” Hollant-Denis said. She said that friction with the manager was present throughout the term of Aarris’s employment.

Despite these setbacks, Turner said that the project got off to a “good start” and the Aarris team worked “hard and diligently.” Soon, however, Aarris ran into communication problems with the university about what it wanted from the project.

“There were some organization problems from our side,” Turner conceded, though at this point he also noted that “all things considered, we did well.”

Hollant-Denis said that Peter Karp, a university architect, told them the plan “was not what he was looking for.” She said that they were told to have an “African village theme.”

“It is demeaning in a sense to assume that a ‘village concept’ would be appropriate. Would it be appropriate to fashion an Asian studies building after an Asian village — a collection of people’s homes around a bakery and a shoe maker? … What is an Asian village? … Is it Japanese, Korean, Chinese? The concept of an African village is narrow-minded and dated,” Hollant-Denis said.

Despite the Aarris team’s reaction against the “village” idea and enthusiastic support from Africana faculty for their original plans, the team came up with four new plans between February and April 2003. Karp was “quite fond” of one of them, Hollant-Denis said, and the firm continued development of that plan. On April 28, one week before the Aarris proposal was to be presented before the board, Karp told the team that the proposal looked good, but needed several major changes, according to Hollant-Denis. A few days later, a memo sent from the project manager contradicted several of Karp’s requests. The team scrambled to meet the new requests by the May 5, 2003 deadline and submitted boards which Hollant-Denis said met the specifications.

Aarris was later informed that their submitted proposal had never been presented before the appropriate committee members, and on May 19 they received notification that their contract would be terminated.

“We feel the University would have accepted that design and that is why [Karp] never presented it,” Hollant-Denis said. Turner, too, said he was surprised by the turn of events. “I thought we had worked all through [existing problems] the last week,” he said.

“There seemed to be uniform excitement [as the last model was developed].”

“I was certainly impressed by the work they had done,” Turner added.

On June 26, the University began meetings with Ralph Jackson and David Bliss of the architectural firm of Shepley, Bullfinch, Richardson and Abbott of Boston.

The team has been involved in several projects on campus, including an addition to the law school, Krock Library, Lincoln Music Hall and current work on Olin Library, according to the firm. The new design is described by Jackson as trying to “speak to … African notions, an African kind of aesthetic.”

The design will feature an “African-derived color palette” and textiled brickwork. The budget for the team has been reported at $4 million dollars.

Meanwhile, Hollant-Denis says that her firm has only been compensated a few thousand of the estimated $100,000 they are owed for their work on the project.

“If the University had paid us for our time from January to May, we would not be talking right now. They are not paying us for any of that time,” she said. The money that Aarris has received has gone to pay outside consultants brought in to work on the project, according to Hollant-Denis.

“The only way to get them to talk to us was to threaten litigation,” said Hollant-Denis in regards to attempts to collect money she says Aarris is owed.

Turner, too, indicated that he was troubled by this development. “[The Africana faculty] said that everything should be done to justly compensate Aarris Architecture,” he said. “I was very disappointed to learn that they have not been fully compensated for the work that they did.”

“The matter has been thoroughly reviewed and has been in the hands of University legal counsel and the Aarris attorneys for over a year now,” the University said in a statement. “The University had a contract with Aarris and believes it has fulfilled the contract and believes any claims of money beyond the contract are without merit.”

“The University feels that they made the best decision towards completing the important project at the Africana Center,” the statement continued.

In response to questions about why the Aarris contract was terminated, a university official said that “conditions in the contract were not being fulfilled,” declining further elaboration citing the possibility of future litigation.

“There’s something more valuable than can be measured in dollars here,” said Turner, in regards to the
effort and energy put into the project by the Aarris team. “They became personally devoted to this project, and to Cornell, and to do this for Cornell. It is precisely for those reasons that I find it really sad that it would come to a dispute over being fairly compensated.”

“I don’t want to get caught up in a squabble,” Turner said, “but I find it, as a matter of conscience, necessary that this firm be treated fairly.”

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Staff Writer