Boston University (BU) is a highly regarded urban institution with a tightly knit campus in the heart of Boston. Nonetheless, it has always been somewhat in the shadow of educational behemoths Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both located across the Charles River in Cambridge.
Architecture at BU has for the last two generations tended toward mediocrity. This is due largely to the long tenure of John R. Silber, president of the university from 1971 to 1996. Silber detested cutting edge contemporary design, even penning a 2007 book entitled The Architecture of the Absurd, which derided universities’ infatuation with starchitecture, singling out MIT for special scorn for its commissioning of Frank Gehry to design the Ray and Maria Stata Center, completed in 2004. Peel Pop Rivets
That was then. This is now. Thanks to its just-completed Center for Computing & Data Sciences, BU is on the map architecturally—and on the skyline in Boston. The $305 million building is the result of a competition held in 2012 in which a long list of about 50 firms was whittled down to five competitors, each of which submitted highly developed schemes. The competition was won by KPMB of Toronto, which bested other finalists Kohn Pedersen Fox, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Safdie Architects, and Elkus Manfredi Architects; the latter two firms are based in Boston.
Azer Bestavros, BU’s inaugural associate provost for Computing and Data Sciences, can barely contain his excitement when talking about the new building. He noted how as the university’s tallest structure, it marks itself on the Boston cityscape—and is visible from MIT.
“We can see them, but more importantly, they can see us,” he said.
So this is architecture as a means of transforming a university’s profile in its host city—and its sense of itself. In a brief interview with AN, BU President Robert A. Brown averred: “We saw this piece of property as the most prominent building site on our campus. We wanted to do something that was distinctive, visible on the skyline, a building that when people see it, they will know it’s Boston University.”
A gonzo bit of urban design, the building’s exterior is a wild mix of transparent and reflective glass, rust-colored painted aluminum panels, and exposed steel structure. When the design was unveiled in 2018, it became known locally as the “stack-of-books building” because its massing suggested open books piled one on top of the other.
“I don’t mind it being called a stack of books,” Paulo Rocha, partner at KPMB, said. “But I prefer to think of it as a stack of neighborhoods. It has multiple departments, each with its own needs and identity. BU didn’t have room to grow horizontally, so this a vertical campus.”
The building’s interior is impressive. The lack of surrounding tall buildings gives its upper floors some of the most dramatic views in Boston. Entering through two main entrances off Commonwealth Avenue, it’s clear that the central atrium is conceived as a continuation of the avenue—a large café is placed so it is visible from the street, like a storefront. At the atrium’s heart is series of ramps and stairways designed to encourage collaboration and student/faculty interaction.
“This building is for the people,” said Bestavros. “It is open to everyone on BU’s campus.”
Rocha pointed to what he calls a “ribbon of circulation”: a large black steel ramp which morphs into a stairway as it rises through the atrium. It is not just for show—the black steel is structural. “The black along with the light hemlock wood slats will make the colorful furniture pop visually,” he said. (KPMB also designed the interiors.) There is the overall impression of height and dramatic coloration (yet-to-be-installed furniture will be in bright, primary colors) that give the atrium its oomph. The building will open officially to students in January.
There are no corner offices. Instead, these prime spaces are given over to collaborative areas which are infinitely changeable and occupant controlled. “I’m the associate provost, and I could have had a great corner office,” Bestavros quipped. “But we wanted to make it about people, about interaction and collaboration.”
KPMB’s Center for Computing & Data Sciences is a paragon of sustainable design. Designed to LEED Platinum standards, it boasts 31 underground geothermal wells that will provide 90 percent of the heating and cooling in the building. Its eight outdoor terraces are each a green roof to minimize the heat island effect and introduce a bit of nature into a dense urban setting. BU is installing solar arrays on nearby buildings that will generate about 1.2 million kWh of electricity a year for the center, representing over 23 percent of the building’s electricity needs.
Bold cantilevers and the exposed steel structure are the result of KPMB’s collaboration with two structural engineering firms: Entuitive’s Toronto office and LeMessurier in Boston. The architects describe the joint efforts as “a perfect marriage.” Rocha said that Entuitive designed the steel while LeMessurier worked on the concrete. The exposed steel on the interiors is especially visually appealing—bolts, rivets, and angled beams, left exposed, give occupants a sense of what holds the building up.
Rocha is justifiably pleased with the entire architectural/interior ensemble.
“This building was designed to be part of the urban fabric of Boston,” he concluded. “For example, the rust-colored painted aluminum panels were inspired by the city’s red brick townhouses. We worked extensively with the Boston Planning and Development Agency and the Boston Civic Design Commission to make it all about Boston and the public realm.”
Steel Hemlock Rivet James McCown is a Boston-based architectural journalist and author of the upcoming Home Office Space: Pavilions, Shacks, and Extensions for Optimum Inspiration and Productivity, to be published by Rizzoli in 2023.