AMHERST — It was the biggest, most expensive, most audacious building ever conceived at Amherst College, a terraced glass-and-steel science center nestled into a hill, designed by a celebrated architect.
But now, it is a $19 million mistake, never to be built.
When the college president, Carolyn A. "Biddy" Martin, broke the news to the campus in May, she said the imperative to build partly underground had driven costs beyond what could be justified, while preliminary work on the site close to the center of campus proved too disruptive to dorm life and experiments in nearby laboratories.
Amherst, she said, would still build a new science center, but it was going back to the drawing board to come up with a new site and a new design. "Fiscal responsibility demands that we pivot to a less difficult site," Martin wrote to the Amherst community.
That a major construction project could collapse at this elite liberal arts college offers a lesson to the many other academic institutions grappling with how to build bold science facilities that position them on the frontiers of human knowledge without draining today's financial resources. The nature of that lesson, though, is very much in dispute.
To some professors, the building was too beholden to fashion, with a grand atrium — meant to foster serendipitous encounters that spark new ideas — crowding out unglamorous basics like lab space. To others, Amherst's leaders were brave to walk away, despite having spent $19 million, rather than sink many millions more into an unworkable project.
The $19 million covered work by architects — whose role was nearly finished — engineers, and other consultants as well as prep work like moving utility lines and demolishing a dormitory, college officials say.
Observers see in Amherst's experience a sign that science construction may be becoming the new campus arms race, on the heels of the rush to offer luxurious dorms, fitness centers, and dining halls. While science labs are arguably much more fundamental to the academic mission, they are also more expensive and complex.
Locally, ambitious science and engineering buildings have opened in recent years, or are in the works, at Brandeis, Northeastern, and on several UMass campuses. Bridgewater State University has a new $99 million science and math center.
Further afield, Cornell and an Israeli college are building a new science and technology graduate school on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
But Amherst is not alone in pulling back. Most famously, amid the financial crisis that devastated its endowment, Harvard halted construction on its vast science complex in Allston in 2009. The $1 billion project, like the ill-fated Amherst building, was designed by Stefan Behnisch. Harvard is now moving forward slowly with what is likely to be a more modest science complex, also designed by Behnisch.
Tufts University scrapped plans for a large lab complex it had announced before the financial crisis, instead focusing on smaller building and renovation projects.
Alex Krieger, an urban design professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, cochaired a university team that recast the Allston project. He found a silver lining in the new campus's rocky start — that the economy saved Harvard from building something bigger than it really needed at the time.
"I think in the newfound enthusiasm for the sciences . . . many universities began to imagine highly sophisticated, highly complicated science facilities, some of which would ultimately prove to be somewhat unaffordable or premature," Krieger said.
At Amherst, everyone agreed that several science departments badly needed new labs and classrooms. College leaders wanted to preserve the unusually intimate feeling of the campus of 1,800 undergraduates, where small buildings are clustered together, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Holyoke mountain range.
So there was a premium on building the new center close to the core of the campus, but without dwarfing everything around it. That gave rise to Behnisch's vision to obscure the bulk of the 220,000-square-foot building by embedding it into a hillside on a site overlapping with the 1960s science center it was to replace.
Building partially underground demanded a bigger atrium to pull natural light in from the other side of the building, officials said. The plan also required two construction phases, with the old science center to be demolished in the middle, as well as complicated engineering solutions like an underground retaining wall. All of these factors were expensive, and the project was estimated to cost about $245 million.
The design philosophy also embraced the idea, which currently holds sway at universities across the country, that a science facility must above all bring professors and students from different disciplines into frequent encounters, since so much of what is exciting in science today lies on the borders between different fields.
But some complain that the design took the interdisciplinary ideal to the extreme.
"I don't necessarily think it's a bad idea, but it also leaves out what is good about disciplinary work," said Kannan Jagannathan, a professor in the physics department, which would have had less lab space in the new building than the old one. "The building was also viewed as a vast social space with a big atrium that would draw students in, there would be a coffee bar, this and that. Here's the result of that: Some of the research labs, teaching spaces, and faculty offices were tucked into the space that was left over."
From the start, the college knew the plan was costly, and disruptive. But as it began laying the groundwork, Martin and others said, all those factors became more extreme.
Even before the groundbreaking, work on the site was disturbing physics experiments in the old science center. Worries about vibrations, fumes, and dust grew so widespread that the college feared some professors would seek jobs elsewhere rather than have their research upended for several years — potentially a crushing interruption for a young researcher trying to earn tenure.
Meanwhile, bid after bid was coming in 5 to 7 percent over budget, according to Jim Brassord, director of facilities — although Behnisch said the costs related to his design were barely higher than estimates.
"At a certain point it just becomes beyond the capacity of the institution," Brassord said.
Amherst is one of the wealthiest colleges in the world, with an endowment of $1.64 billion. But it never joined in the competition to build the plushest student facilities, and instead made financial aid an exceptional focus.
Martin inherited the project when she replaced Anthony Marx as president in 2011. She had high praise for Behnisch's work, and also for administrators and trustees who were willing to face the embarrassment of canceling the project.
Pressed in an interview on what missteps the college made, Martin demurred.
"I wouldn't say there were mistakes made," she said. "Good people with great intentions for the future of science at Amherst and with a strong sense of aesthetics made a very good decision knowing that it was a complicated project [before discovering] it was even more complicated than they had thought."
Some professors and students said they find that answer deeply unsatisfying. Others accept the decision, while still mourning what they saw as a superlative building.
"I think there was credit to be given for pulling the plug when it became clear that was the right thing to do, but also credit for looking forward and being willing to explore a project that might entail some risk," said chemistry professor Mark D. Marshall. "That's science. I tell my students every class, science is not about knowing the answer to every question, it's about exploring questions that are interesting."
Behnisch, a German architect also known for designing the award-winning Genzyme headquarters in Kendall Square, said it is often difficult for architects to get people to think past the disruptions of today to the needs of tomorrow.
He, too, is searching for lessons from the experience. Though convinced his building was the right solution for Amherst, he wonders whether he should have realized the college was not ready for something so ambitious.
"We as architects sometimes have to advise our clients to not go for the daring solution," he said. "To read our clients and say, you know for you, maybe it's not really Prada, maybe it's Brooks Brothers."