Of the three new buildings that compose Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College in Vermont, it is the program-less “Lens” that best represents the iconoclastic institution where students have been designing their own curricula since 1932. The Lens is somewhat of a folly: Black walnut benches define the interior space of a marble-clad cube and cerulean walls slope inward and up to a James Turrell–like manual oculus. The space is open from morning to night, with the idea that solutions for the world’s ills—CAPA’s purpose—don’t always begin with collaboration.
CAPA’s other two marble buildings house a lush, luxe residence for visiting scholars, and a symposium with classrooms, offices, the college’s first-ever faculty lounge, and a mini-UN-style seminar room. The idea for CAPA coalesced during several years of discussion about a new academic program that would engage students in urgent social issues. It was given a jump-start in 2007 by a $20 million gift from Susan Paris Borden (class of 1969) and her husband, Robert. “One of the reasons CAPA emerged was the challenge of the world,” says Elizabeth Coleman, Bennington’s president since 1987. “How do you, as an educational institution, sit still in the face of what’s going on? How do you just act as if nothing is going on? To me, that’s no longer acceptable.”