Many of us have walked through the Roche Sports Complex without giving it much consideration. After all, why would you? The monolithic wall of exterior brick, an interior sky of ceiling tiles, and the fluorescent suns don’t offer us much of anything worth caring about. This current iteration, however, is not how the Sports Complex always looked.
The building we know as the Splex was completed in 1927 after two years of construction, replacing the old wooden gymnasium that once sat on the quad. As it stood then until the late 1980s, students would enter through a grand arched door into an open-aired space surrounded by towering windows with skylights overhead.
The same space where we now have basketball games and mock rock was once bathed in natural light. The exterior windows were arched, and the glass panels reflected the curvature in their panes. The brickwork was modest, yet detailed, with simple crown moldings and limestone accents between the columns of the windows.
The entire building was constructed with its purpose in mind, to create a space that someone would feel good exercising in. The question we must answer now is, what happened?
After many years of harsh Michigan winters, the Roche administration decided that the Splex could use a renovation. Instead of repairing the gym to its original state, or merely upgrading its amenities, they decided to essentially construct a new building inside the original.
First, they covered every single window with a thin brick veneer. Then, the skylights were roofed over, a bright white drop ceiling was installed on the impressive iron beams, and the interior walls were covered by cinder-block.
Perhaps the saddest day for our Splex was the renovation’s final step, the removal of the grand arched entrance that decades of students had passed under. What was left is what we see today: A gym full of function but no form.
No longer does our grand building showcase any beauty, but instead it offersa false brick face that can only be compared to the architecture of the Brutalists. What are we to do now?
Let’s consider another building on campus to inform how we should treat the Splex. There was once a classroom building named Kresge that sat behind Central Hall. The architecture of this building was so antithetical to the values of our college that Dr. Arnn had it demolished soon after becoming president.
Lane and Kendall were constructed to replace Kresge, and with the form and function of those spaces in mind, consider this: Lane and Kendall are busy at nearly all times of day, while Dow Math, the ugliest building on campus, is always nearly abandoned.
People recognize that our buildings are physical manifestations of our values and subconsciously adjust their behavior in how they use our spaces. How does the current architecture of the Splex affect how we engage with it?
Thankfully it is not too late to right the wrongs made by the previous generation. After some investigation, I have found that the original architecture of the Splex, including the windows, are still intact, just hidden.
Maybe it is time to give our athletes a space worth caring about, a space that reflects the mission of the college, and brings our athletics fully into the fold of our liberal arts tradition. It’s time we pull off the curtain of the brick veneer and let the sun shine on our physical education once again.