Bard's Natural EnvironmentAlso found in the Preservation Master Plan (2008) is the following information about the development of Bard around the common theme of the natural environment. It details the evolution of how the land shaped what it was used for and who used it.
The cultural landscape of Bard College embodies an extensive and complex history that represents a variety of social ideals and collision of diverse design trends. Over time, however, there has generally been one concept that pervades each period and phase of evolution--that of a shared sense of respect for the natural environment within which the college resides. This consciousness is exemplified through the earliest settlement of the Hudson River Valley lands by Native Americans who drew sustenance from the Tivoli Bays, its islands, and surrounding uplands, as well as by the first European landholders who situated their country seats on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskills beyond.
These earliest estate owners were followed by successive generations of wealthy landowners with sophisticated tastes and interests; this natural environment defined and refined the concepts of 19th-century American Romanticism and the Picturesque. It also gave birth to the Hudson River School of painting that expressed the character and desired identity of the new American nation.
The founding of St. Stephen’s college upon the “rough and rocky hill” represented the influences of the Picturesque in planning the early campus by responding opportunistically to the geology, topography, and prospect of the Bard lands. Faith and nature achieved a synergistic relationship as wild nature was proclaimed to be a source of moral, spiritual and patriotic inspiration. The belief that nature is a spiritual resource became one of the definitive themes of the conservation movement, which took root in the middle of the nineteenth century.
By the end of the nineteenth century, beliefs that nature could also serve as a healing agent followed in response to increased industrialization and urbanization, particularly of the sort found in New York City. The idea of returning to nature for respite and exercise became one of the key ideals espoused during the early twentieth century of progressive reform. The natural and bucolic environment of Ward Manor served as the setting within which one social welfare organization, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), established its “fresh air camps” and carried out its mission to serve the less fortunate.
While the style of the Beaux-Arts-inspired redesign of the Blithewood estate is very different from the earlier Picturesque style, it too was influenced by the site’s natural setting. The geometric, symmetrical forms of this style are exemplified by the formal garden, oriented to the same mountain views. Rather than harmony, however, the natural surroundings serve as a counterpoint; the river and mountains are the subject of a more formal vista, and serve as a backdrop to directed views that focus the eye along the main axis of the garden.
The Modern period of design, which in many other instances often ignored context and precedent, could not escape the natural setting of the Hudson River Valley. At Bard, the modern campus was shaped by adapting the needs and ideals of the era to the indelible identity of the estate landscapes. The newest buildings on campus, such as the Gehry and Viñoly buildings, continue to respond to the environment in their own way, either by reference to the Catskills through the deconstructivist design style of the Performing Arts Center, or through the sinuous line of the Reem and Kayden Environmental Center, which responds to both the rock outcrop and north-south axis of the historic core of campus. The Village Dormitories attempt to take ecological consciousness to new levels through sustainable architectural design techniques involving renewable energy, conservation, and a native plant palette.