UMass service workers pavilion a ‘bad idea’

  • University of Massachusetts officials have paused plans to construct the UMass Amherst Service Workers Honor Pavilion, shown in this rendering, on the Arthur F. Kinney Center for Renaissance Studies property. SIGRID MILLER POLLIN 

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Since the COVID pandemic began, UMass’s 1,400 service staff workers have done extraordinary, even heroic work. To recognize them, an anonymous donor has pledged $7 million dollars to construct a pavilion on UMass land, dedicated to service staff. Designed by architect Sigrid Miller Pollin, the open-air structure will be available, according to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, for “quiet contemplation and gatherings” and will provide “an enduring reminder of (the service workers’) importance to UMass – Amherst.”

A generous and self-effacing donor; an accomplished architect working for free, a university eager to celebrate its employees. What could be wrong? But the project is wrong. In both its proposed location and its conception, it is a bad idea.

The pavilion is to be built near UMass’s Renaissance Studies Center, on the brow of Dakin Meadow, just west of East Pleasant Street. The meadow was willed to UMass by professional zoologist and animal lover Janet Dakin to serve the entire Amherst community as a place for quiet walks and the appreciation of nature. For the nearly 30 years since her death, that is what it has done, offering spectacular views of the Berkshires. Hundreds of area residents and UMass students have enjoyed its unspoiled natural beauty.

The placement of an 80-foot-long and 24-foot-wide, white, cinder block and concrete structure in the midst of this wonderful resource will degrade its beauty and subvert the purposes for which it was intended. Opinions will vary as to the design itself, but one thing is clear. It doesn’t belong. It will be a dissonant intrusion to the surrounding landscape — a sore thumb.

Apart from the inappropriateness of its location, is a memorial pavilion honoring service workers a good idea? Clearly, the pavilion is not meant for their use. They did not participate in its planning. Aside from knowing about it, they will receive no benefit. The pavilion is to be built in the extreme northeast corner of the campus. Will they be flocking to it for quiet contemplation after a full day’s work? Will they be the ones to participate in the gatherings to be held there?

Are elephantine monuments such as this one, a good idea generally? Do the people walking by them or on them even register why they were built, or do they become “invisible,” as the writer Robert Musil famously remarked?

There are better options. The most obvious is money. What if all or part of the $7 million was distributed to service workers as bonuses, or “hazard pay” as Amherst College has done? How about scholarships given in honor of service workers? Or, if we must have a physical monument, how about something smaller and less intrusive, located centrally, where service workers might actually see it in the course of the workday?

The pavilion is a bad idea. Chancellor Subbaswamy and the pavilion’s anonymous donor should cancel it, and instead do something for service workers that will truly and substantively show them how much we value their essential work.

Michael Weiler lives in Amherst.