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Rearview Mirror: Editorializing on the Fate of the Kessler Campanile

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There’s apparently some Campanile-related controversy going around the Georgia Tech interwebs lately.

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Artist’s rendering of the Kessler Campanile, circa 1996.
Georgia Tech Archives/Facilities Department Photographs and Slides (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/24126)

I was under the impression that this week’s topic had been old news for some time. But, based on the reaction on /r/gatech to this petition and the fact that local news was at the Campanile two days ago, apparently I’m wrong. So today we’re taking a more present-day look at the modernist spiral shaft in the middle of campus.


I usually refrain from blatant bias, or at least try, but today I’m not. I have a very strong opinion on what I’m about present to the good Commentariat of From the Rumble Seat today. So, forgive me for the slight change in tone and format and let’s get on with the column.


Richard Hill, a graduate of the school in Athens, would not be the first person you’d expect to design a landmark on the Flats, at least by his pedigree. But, in 1991, he approached Architectural Support Services, Inc., a computer-aided design firm, about helping him implement the anchoring symbol of Georgia Tech’s Olympic Village: an 80 foot tall stainless steel obelisk set on a granite base, surrounded by a water feature. The new monument was to serve both as a freestanding bell tower and a modernist symbol of the Institute, complete with an adornment paying homage to Tech Tower and serving as the new official logo.

The Campanile gets its iconic twisting shape from the slight rotation of each of its 244 stainless steel plates as the height increases. These were implemented via the CAD work of ASSI employee and Tech alumnus Vic Williams and the structural engineering of Jim O’Kon, another Yellow Jacket.

If you polled the average Tech student nowadays on the definition of the word “campanile,” they probably wouldn’t get it right. That’s no fault of theirs, though, since the carillon bell chimes associated with the structure on Tech’s campus have been silent almost a decade now.

“cam·pa·ni·le
/kæmpəˈnili/
noun
A bell tower (now especially when freestanding), often associated with a church or other public building, especially in Italy.” (Wikitionary)

You’ll note there as well that the average Tech student, myself included, doesn’t even say the word correctly, with a hard “e” sound at the end of the word. But, since the bells don’t chime, the Campanile isn’t really much of a campanile at all, but rather just a tall skewed spike. Whether it’s the Westminster Chimes or Ramblin’ Wreck, I think it’s a shame not to have that anymore. But, there’s less sense in groveling about something I can’t remember, and instead focus on this decade’s alterations to Hill’s landmark in the middle of Kessler and the Class of ‘43 and ‘53’s plaza.

The student center - erm, campus center - renovation plans call to get rid of the fountain.

“Our new look draws from our history and traditions, yet expresses our commitment to innovation and moving forward,” former President Wayne Clough commented when the branding update introducing the Kessler Campanile as a part of Georgia Tech branding guidelines. Amelia Gambino, then Director of Publications, added, its purpose was “to strengthen the image and name recognition of Georgia Tech through its strong visual impression and consistent use.” Largely this appeal was to reach people outside of Atlanta, across the country, and, critically, across the world.

I think it’s no question that they were successful. One of Tech’s most iconic sights now is the view from the plaza, through the Campanile and fountain, out on to Tech Green with the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons in the distance. Losing the intimacy of the amphitheater and the intricacy of the water takes away a lot of the feel that makes that part of campus so special.

The thing is, it could’ve been worse. It’s been weird, as someone who’s seen these plans in many forms, that not more people had heard about this before a couple days ago. One of the early drafts called for uprooting the entire structure and placing it in the middle of the plaza usually home to the colloquially named Ice Cream Cone statue between the Ferst Center, Smithgall Student Services, and the back side of the Student Center — a location which would’ve undoubtedly been even worse.

The thing is, it seems like this project is getting value-engineered into oblivion. Though the Campanile is no longer on the move, it loses most non-essential supporting structures. Where would pregame warmups, an important stop on the gameday morning routine, especially for fans of marching band and the spirit groups, move to? Where would students have a nice shady place to meet or eat lunch, or even relax socially? The tables and bowl seating of the plaza have been a part of those day-in and day-out traditions, too, ever since the plaza was created for the ‘96 Olympics. These losses are mostly in the guise of costing too much money for a project on what seems is a shoestring budget.

And it’s odd, though, how certain vocally supported or traditionally-minded projects also fell by the wayside. The final blow to Under the Couch, a longtime campus independent music space, was surprising, seeing as how it was pretty well supported in the various planning and research projects. The nixed addition of a student and visitor-facing Ramblin’ Reck garage was even more startling. In the end, another massive ballroom space made the cut but those didn’t? I don’t pretend to know all the little details, but it seems that some of the innovative ideas most beneficial to students, traditions, and guests weren’t included at all, and to lose spaces that have underpinned the last few decades of life at Tech - namely the heart of the iconic plaza Hill designed as the international face of Tech on what is almost certainly the biggest stage the Institute will ever be on is a tragedy.

Thank goodness the bones of the original Wenn Student Center are sticking around, so they match the red brick to the campus vernacular architecture - probably the most egregious mistake in the design and construction of West Village - but it is a pithy reward nonetheless.

I’m not going to go as far as some of the more bombastic comments from across the Georgia Tech sphere of the internet, that there was some vast bureaucratic conspiracy without the best interests of the students of the Institute in mind when the designs were made, because I’m sure they acted in good faith. But it stings to know not just what could’ve been - a new facility development well rooted in history and Tech verve anchored by the Ramblin’ Reck, one of Tech’s strongest traditions and living icons - but also what we already have and will still be losing. I was disappointed when I learned on my first gameday morning from a longtime tailgater that the Campanile used to chime, yet no longer did. But it’ll be devastation we all feel when the the idyllic space around it fades into generic nothingness on a silent fall breeze.

From icon to iconoclasm.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.


If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.