Shaping and serving: A Q-and-A with a Wheaton College architect

In the heart of Chase Service Center, down a series of hallways and past stacks of large file cabinets, sits a man in his office. If you were to pass Bruce Koenigsberg while walking around campus, you might not be able to pick him out of the crowd like you would the president, a favorite professor or even a successful coach. While he may be quiet and soft-spoken, Koenigsberg fills an important role as one of Wheaton’s college architects and the director of the Facility Development Department. With a distinct attitude of humility, Koenigsberg has spent the last 30 years serving the Wheaton College community, playing a vital role in shaping campus into what it looks like today.

As the first interview in a series that will focus on staff members who play crucial roles in serving students, staff and faculty, yet often go unnoticed, Features sat down with Koenigsberg to discuss how he got this position, his favorite projects, and why he enjoys his job.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Wheaton Record: What is your official job title?

Bruce Koenigsberg: My title is College Architect, and I direct the Facility Development Department, which has two staff members: Britta Walbaum, an architect, and Whitley Grey, the cad and records coordinator.  They are really great to work with.

Record: How long have you worked for Wheaton College?

BK: I came in 1984, so this is my 30-year anniversary.

Record: How did you come to work here—did you always want to work for Wheaton College?

BK: It’s just a wonderful story of how God directed things. It’s unusual for a small college to have a staff architect, let alone two. When I finished my undergrad at Iowa State University, I went to Grace Theological Seminary for some Bible training. I was able to work for an architect while doing that and could compare and discern God’s calling to either ministry or architecture.  God directed me after two years of seminary to pursue architecture.

Record: Why did you choose architecture?

BK: I pursued architecture because that’s where my passions were. I gained a vision for church-related architecture while working during the seminary training, so I went back to Iowa where I grew up, worked for a firm there and became licensed as an architect. I told one of the partners in the firm I was working with that I would really like a Christian application to architecture, and he had a rather providential connection with someone from Wheaton College. They happened to sit next to each other at a conference, and my boss from Iowa told the Wheaton man that I was interested. The Wheaton man said they had an opening, but it was for a draftsman position. My boss told me and I called Wheaton and said ‘I’m interested if you would be willing to upgrade the position to a professional level,’ and they did. So I came at that invitation to become the first college architect for Wheaton College. I was convinced they would run out of work in about five years, but there’s just been an ongoing stream of work and funding and opportunities that have been God’s providence. This has been a very fulfilling career for me, because of that purpose that I have here serving God and this great community. It’s very rewarding to serve my friends and see them enjoy the new and improved facilities and have their needs met in the right way.

God never wastes an opportunity or an experience. Whatever he takes you through usually comes back and finds a way to be meaningful.

Record: What does your job include on a day-to-day basis?

BK: I very often get the question, ‘What do you teach?’ My responsibilities have been facilities, not teaching, and part of the pleasure of the job is the variety; the scale that goes from zero to 100––from a plaque on the wall to a science building. It keeps me creative and it makes life interesting, but it does require a great deal of flexibility, because you can be moving in one direction, and take a right-hand turn on short notice.

Record: What do you enjoy most about your job?

BK: I particularly enjoy being given the assignment to do a project for a group of people. For example, the current major project is the music building. I enjoy talking with conservatory faculty and the leaders that they appoint to work with me, getting to know them and building relationships and understanding what it is they need, what their priorities are, and how to find a good solution that fits those needs. I’ve learned to be focused on the practical—that if the building doesn’t meet the user’s needs, and looks really beautiful and wins lots of awards, it’s not successful. It actually has to function well in order to be successful, and look good (laughs).

Record: Do you do all of the work yourself, or do you have assistance?

BK: I apply my efforts to the conceptual design and long-range planning, getting projects to the point for the administration where they are ready to proceed with hiring an outsourced design team. But when it’s time to outsource a design for a project, we’re getting pretty serious about it and we know what we’re going to do, I monitor that outsourced firm to make sure they’re listening carefully to these friends that I’ve developed as clients. When I’m in these meetings I make sure that the design team is listening correctly to my friends. I really enjoy doing that, because there are relationships to be upheld and to be accountable for.

Record: Have you worked with nearly every department on campus?

BK: I think so. For some, it’s been a while — some of the people have changed — but that’s part of the pleasure of the job, is having this cross-section of the whole college that I’ve had relationships with, including the students. It’s delightful.

Record: What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on over the years?

BK: Three highlights:  One was the transformation of Blanchard Hall in 1990. Over its 150-plus years, it has had a lot of various work done on it, not all good, and it got to the point where there were dead-end hallways and stairs that didn’t connect to things and a lot of ups and downs in the buildings, and a lot of structural failures. To take that building and keep the historical exterior and renovate it and give it a historically-sensitive interior, and one that flowed well and really worked for the next century, was a huge challenge and (I think) a great solution for the campus. So, I’m really pleased with how the Blanchard Hall renovation turned out; it was quite a milestone for the college.

The other project that was significant, although you might not expect it, was the Franklin Street conversion to the walking mall, the paver pathway. It wasn’t just a pathway, it was actually the making of our campus, because before, it was split on two or three sides of the street, and there were vehicles going through it, and it was in disrepair. My boss at the time, Steve Mead, was instrumental in helping get the street vacated from the city to Wheaton College, so we then owned it. We could develop it, upgrade it and unify the campus. In my opinion, in 1994 that project really gave us a campus.

Record: What do you think is the best piece of architecture on campus?

BK: The most recent building, the Meyer Science Center … I think it is the best piece of architecture on our campus. It was a very successful building, and the national firm, Payette, that we hired out of Boston just did a fantastic job. It really works well for science, it’s flexible, it’s very transparent, contemporary enough to say that we do science in the modern age and we’re up to speed with all of our technology and resources. That slice in the middle of the building, where Perry Mastodon is and all the exhibits are, I think, was a huge commitment on the part of the college to invest dollars in that kind of informal learning. It’s not very common at other schools—they really have a lot of pressure to commit all of their square footage to laboratories and classrooms. Well, this was a commitment to informal learning, and it was a really wise decision.

Record: Can you think of any challenges, as an architect in general, working on a college campus?

BK: It really comes down to managing your expectations. If you’ve determined in your mind that it must be one way and nothing else, you’ll experience disappointment. If you can hold life loosely and hold the architecture of the campus somewhat loosely and yet still be looking out for it, I think it makes for less stress and better results. Yes, there are stressful times. Inevitably, there is conflict. There are things, as a designer, you see happening that you wish wouldn’t happen, and you sort of have to say, ‘Well, are these important or not?’ If they are, you can respond. If not, then you can let them go and other opportunities will come around again (laughs). There are projects that I’m remodeling now that I did once or even twice before, and you just can’t get yourself personally invested in the previous project to the point where it’s sacred. It’s not me, it’s God shaping students and the institution. Manage your expectations, and have the right perspective.

So many times, in so many projects, I will look back, either as the project progresses or at the end, and I will discover something that I had not anticipated, that turned out for good. I view that as God helping us get that just right.

Record: What is the most rewarding part of working as the campus architect?

BK: For me, it’s actually seeing projects work well to meet the user’s needs. If I can see that people’s lives are being enriched and their work is being enhanced with the environment provided—if students are learning in delightful environments like the Bible Department classrooms (BGC 5th Floor) or they’re having a much more pleasant life because of the natural light that is there (that wasn’t there before); seeing those things enjoyed and benefited from is the most rewarding.

Record: Would you like to add any further thoughts?

BK: I often like to say, when I finish a project, ‘I wish my office could be in this building!’ It seems like the quality of the projects has increasingly gotten better and better over time, so yes, I would say, the last one I did is where I want to have my office. But, it’s always interesting to learn as you go. We learned from the Meyer Science Center lots of good things from Payette about natural light and how to make the building transparent and enhance community by being able to see into classrooms. We applied those things we learned to the BGC 5th floor project, and now that we’ve learned from the BGC 5th floor project, the roof openings and that sort of thing can be applied to the next project. Everything sort of builds forward because you’re always learning.

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