By Monica Chapman
John Kotowski's architectural philosophies may have changed over his career, but his commitment to Ohio University was constant through 32 years of service.
In that time, the former associate vice president for facilities implemented more than $750 million worth of capital improvements, from the renovation of Grosvenor Hall into a medical school -- his first building project -- to the construction of the new Baker University Center.
In a recent interview, Kotowski, who retired Sept. 30, shared his thoughts about the past, present and future of Ohio University's facilities.
What led you to Ohio University?
Since junior high school, I knew I was going to be an architect. Originally, I wanted to have this private professional practice, but I quickly realized how difficult and challenging that would be. Most architects who have their own practice end up doing a lot of soliciting. It kind of promotes you right out of your profession, to where you're spending very little time on architecture and a lot of time trying to find work.
So I decided to rethink how I would use my architectural background. Being on the owner's side -- where you develop the projects, hire the consultants and tell them what you want to accomplish -- is more consistent with what I really wanted to do. And that's what I've been doing for Ohio University for the past 32 years.
What was your mindset when you arrived?
Being a graduate of a fairly contemporary school of architecture at Kent State, my feeling was that one ought to express oneself with architecture and not limit it in terms of its palate or the materials used.
One of the things that was troubling to me when I came here was that all the buildings were kind of Georgian and many of the buildings were built to look like they could've been constructed at the turn of the century. Personally, I didn't agree with that. I didn't necessarily want to make a piece of architecture look older to tie in with a previous philosophy or direction.
As I continued to work here and talk with alumni, the more I began to understand the significance of the university's architectural style. It was such an important part of what alumni liked. My philosophy changed to the point where today, I think one of the strengths of Ohio University is that integrity and how the campus ties together through brick and stone and those old Georgian philosophies.
What makes Ohio University's facilities unique?
One of the things that is so very important to me is the scale of the campus. It doesn't feel like a campus that is 20,000 students in size. It feels like a much smaller place. Granted, we're a dense campus. But we've done it well. And that's part of the Georgian architecture. It's a more broken-up architecture and incorporates different kinds of materials. It has a more human scale.
How have the university's building philosophies changed over time?
In the '60s, the philosophy was, 'Build it so it's easy to maintain.' Floors were vinyl tile, and walls were concrete block. When times got better, we started talking about the idea of professionalism, and we began to re-evaluate the learning environment. Subsequent buildings -- like Copeland and Scripps -- began to use more wood trim, wall fabrics and carpeting. And we found that people respected that and took care of it. They appreciated an environment that was more professional in nature.
In recent years, the philosophy has been to try to reuse the existing space and to be conservative in terms of building new space. One of the reasons I've been here for 32 years is because this institution has been committed to adaptive reuse, or renovating its old buildings.
Why not build new?
My belief is that older buildings are built more substantially. They are better buildings than you can afford to build today, with few exceptions. Just look at Cutler Hall (which opened in 1819) and how solid and sound those walls are. You can't do that anymore! The new construction techniques are good construction techniques, but older buildings are sounder.
How does Ohio University's approach compare with building philosophies at other universities?
There are still a lot of people who feel it's important to build signature architecture. Ohio State and Cincinnati still do a lot of signature pieces. They want architectural monuments on their campus because it potentially gives them national recognition. My philosophy has always been to try to provide a product that works.
A product that works. Can you give an example?
Take Baker University Center. In my opinion, Baker works better than most university centers in the country. Part of it is the way it has tied the campus together -- connecting the lower part of the campus with the upper part of the campus. It's a pedestrian street, and it promotes interaction. One of the purposes of a university center is to try to bring your student population together to interact and exchange ideas, and I think Baker does a really good job of this.
What aspects of your job have you enjoyed most?
One of the things I've most enjoyed is my involvement with the Percent for Art program. For an institution of our size, it's conspicuously void of public art. And so I feel very good about the fact that we've kind of got that ball rolling, where people are thinking about appropriating artwork within the facilities.
I understand you also authored the comprehensive sustainability plan, which was proposed to the Board of Trustees in October. Can you explain your involvement?
I really feel that Ohio University can be a leader in sustainability. But it's not so much about leadership; it's really about doing the right things. This proposal I put together, which needs to be vetted campuswide, is really critical. I'm going to try to stay connected with Sustainability Coordinator Sonia Marcus to help carry this forward.
What lies ahead in terms of facilities planning?
We have a number of buildings that are vacant right now on the campus -- Tupper Hall, old Baker Center, the President Street Academic Center, parts of Central Classroom Building. There's a lot of space there that could be effectively used. If you need more space, I think you need to look real hard at those kinds of spaces because I truly believe those buildings are sound and could be renovated at less than it would cost to build new.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
My goal was never to leave any kind of a legacy. My goal was always to try to help the institution grow and prosper by making facilities that really met the needs of the various constituents on campus. I hope people feel that I did a good job with that. I hope people reflect back and think that John Kotowski was good for Ohio University.
Coming soon: An update from Kotowski's successor, Harry Wyatt, on the university's current facilities projects.