Searching for Curves in Amherst’s Architecture


Isenberg School of Management Business Innovation Hub at UMass, designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and architect Goody Clancy of Boston. "The building exterior is wrapped in straight, vertical pillars that gradually slope downward creating a distinct [curvy] appearance without any curved elements." Photo:

Amherst History Month by Month

Walking with friends on the UMass campus, I was asked, “Why does architecture have to be such a rectilinear art form…where are the curves? After all, there are many curves in nature.” There is a long answer (I will spare you, gentle reader) and other possible explanations. An online search might lead you to a site where you can read this light-hearted interpretation:

“At times, a client may request a curve. Stay calm. Remember your training. Calmly explain that that would conflict with the design vocabulary. Remind the client that rectilinear forms are a sign of strength, firmness, commodity, and yes, delight. Stay strong.” 

The text references recommendations by the ancient Roman writer Vitruvius Pollio who held that well-designed architecture “hath three conditions; firmness (structural stability), commodity and delight.” A 17th-century writer, Sir Henry Wotton, translated his words from Latin into English. But it is not the whole story and so I went in search of curves, circles, spheres, and rounded volumetric shapes, first online and then around town, knowing they exist in architecture as well as nature. 

But finding curves in contemporary American buildings — more’s the pity — is almost impossible. I was fortunate perhaps to come across an apartment building on Greenwich Avenue, New York that had this wonderful parapet. And an interesting story.

A building with many windows

Description automatically generated
Uncle Charlies Bar, Greenwich Village, NY. Photo: NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

Closer to home, I remember the nice example on the campus of Amherst College, the Kirby Memorial Theater. It was designed by James Kellum Smith, of McKim, Mead, and White, probably America’s most celebrated modern architectural firm on the East Coast at one time.

Sunol Water Temple with columns and a circular roof

Description automatically generated
Kirby Memorial Theater, Amherst College, Photo:

The building is named after Dr. Elwood Kirby (an anesthesiologist who appears in a famous painting by Thomas Eakins called The Agnew Clinic). Kirby was preserving the memory of an older student’s father who had performed in the college’s tradition of masques and a theatrical group known as the Amherst College Masquers, founded in 1918. 

Just off the UMass campus on North Pleasant Street, I found another gem of a building – more rectilinear but with some curvy features, including distinctive eyebrow windows. The building has been moved from its original location over by Thompson Hall. In 2019, UMass hired Dietz and Company Architects of Springfield to manage its relocation and reconstruction off, but still near, the UMass campus. The original exquisite timber structure is in the Queen Anne architectural style (eyebrow and oriel windows being a characteristic of Queen Anne style), a revival 19th-century style popular in Europe and North America. It is an elaborate horse barn, and was the only remaining barn on the campus from the days of Mass. Aggie before it was moved.

A group of people standing outside a barn

Description automatically generated
19th century horse barn on the UMass Campus. Photo:
The 19th historic horse barn officially reopened in 2019 as the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Hall. Photo:

Most recently the UMass Campus Police Department kept horses here. The barn is now on land used for the UMass Student Farm near Wysocki House and Presidential Apartments and houses on North Pleasant Street. It is now home to  the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, and some of its historic horse pens, with curved entryways have been preserved. 

A wooden building with a few doors

Description automatically generated
Horse stalls (note curves in doorways) in the 19th century horse barn, now the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Hall. ( Photo: Dietz and Company Architects

The exterior wood clapboarding and barn doors have been replaced with historically accurate replicas,  and the shape of the sheltered opening has been retained. Why mess with all these exquisite details? A new metal standing seam roof was completed to replicate the original and the two cupolas were restored according to historic images. To comply with building codes, a new stair and two new bathrooms were built within the existing building footprint. The building is continuously used by the student farm crews for processing their produce.

And lastly, practically on my doorstep is the Isenberg School of Management Business Innovation Hub at UMass, designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and architect of record Goody Clancy of Boston. “The building exterior is wrapped in straight, vertical pillars that gradually slope downward (see thumbnail photo above), creating a distinct [curvy] appearance without any curved elements.”

 Completed in 2019, the building is a wonderful conversation starter and in actuality, “talks” with its vertical mate, the W. E B. du Bois Library. A courtyard is wrapped by the almost complete glass fenestration and arresting cooper structural elements, now nicely weathering five years after construction was completed.

Isenberg School of Management, UMass Amherst, Photo:
Isenberg School of Management, UMass Amherst. Photo:
Spread the love

2 thoughts on “Searching for Curves in Amherst’s Architecture

  1. Thanks for this interesting article! Never thought about curves in architecture but now that you’ve brought it up, I will be looking for more.

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.