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On the afternoon of September 6, 2006, President William P. Leahy, SJ, stepped onto the stage of Robsham Theater at the annual Faculty Convocation and introduced an audience of University employees to a vision of Boston College’s future.
Working with a laser pointer and projected slides, Leahy guided the audience through highlights from a proposed campus development plan that is broader in scope than any similar effort by Boston College since the late 1920s, when President James Dolan, SJ, commissioned Maginnis and Walsh, architectural firm of record for early 20th century highfalutin Catholic business, to imagine a new Oxford on the Heights (drawing, above). This time around, it was Sasaki Associates, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1950s by the legendary American landscape designer Hideo Sasaki, in the role of vision maker.
As distant as are the sensibilities of Maginnis and Walsh from those of Harvard Square in 2006, Sasaki found much to admire and emulate in the work of its predecessor, in particular a focus on Collegiate Gothic forms and on the use of quadrangles linked at corners as the generator of human progress across campus, a continual reiteration of momentum and ingathering, of tension and relaxation.
The “campus master plan” touches upon scores of projects, from the development of offices for centers and institutes on the south side of Beacon Street to the relocation of Newton Campus freshmen to the Upper Campus. Its most dramatic features, however, are a set of academic buildings that anchor a center for the humanities alongside the Dustbowl; a recasting of the Lower Campus as a polished center of intellectual and community life, including a new recreation complex and a University center; a set of science buildings in a quad built on the memories of Cushing and portions of Campion halls; a reef of performing arts facilities on the near edge of the Brighton Campus and an “athletics and recreation district” at the far end; and a knitting together of the Lower and Brighton campuses by means of a footbridge and several blocks of mixed-use development that seem to have been airlifted in from the Main Street of some clean and prosperous Midwestern town.
Developed over the course of a year and in meetings and briefings attended by hundreds of students, faculty, and neighbors, the campus plan is grounded in a recently completed Boston College strategic plan that proposes strong advances over the next decade in the liberal arts, student formation, academic research, professional training, international scope, and Catholic intellectual and theological life.
To these directions Sasaki and their hundreds of formal and informal Boston College advisors joined three aesthetic principles. One was that open space be respected (a goal that seems most clearly articulated in the minimal plans for new construction in the interior of the Brighton Campus). Another was that the campus be made more comfortable for pedestrians (nicely reflected in the burial of most of the Lower Campus roadway beneath grass and by a piazza that runs from the base of Higgins stairs to MDC Hill, better known as “Beer Can Hill” and which Sasaki has now renamed “Pine Tree Preserve”). And the third was that the “power and beauty” of the Middle Campus would serve as a guide to new development (a direction manifest in the use of Collegiate Gothic architecture, nine acres worth of new quadrangles, and 19 acres of “intimate” courtyards). The document by which the plan was presented to the Board of Trustees in September projected an early emphasis on building the humanities center, the science quad, the recreation complex and University center, residence halls, and the Brighton athletic fields.
Just how much of the larger plan will be enacted, and over what period of time, can’t be foretold. In his presentation to the faculty in Robsham, Fr. Leahy said that Boston College’s ability to build any of the facilities was dependent on the timing and size of alumni gifts for the various projects. Executive Vice President Patrick Keating, who led the plan’s development, notes that “BC is required to submit a 10-year master plan to the Boston Redevelopment Authority that outlines its capital proposals over the next decade. In this submittal, however, we also include projects that we may not implement in the initial 10-year phase.” Fr. Dolan’s grand plan may have had a similar horizon. In any case, it was conceived on the eve of the 1929 market crash and was barely enacted; and yet its sensibility has remained persuasive enough that it is being dramatically extended by way of the current facilities project.
The campus master plan is now being prepared for presentation to government officials for review and approvals in early 2007. Refinements and a timetable for near-term implementation are expected to be announced within the next six months.
Renderings by Sasaki Associates (click to enlarge)
Read more by Ben Birnbaum