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Column: Wiley's Follies

Stokes Hall And The Jesuit Ivy

Assistant Arts & Review Editor

Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 17, 2013 00:01

The most recognizable tool in Boston College’s architectural arsenal over the last decade has been the eraser, not the pencil.

In 1978, The Architects’ Collaborative—a Cambridge firm founded by the Bauhaus School’s Walter Gropius—was commissioned to design a library to accommodate BC’s growing student population. O’Neill Library was built and completed accordingly, in Gropius’ postwar modernist tradition. Quite regrettably, the granite monolith had all the warmth of a mausoleum. Decades later, the building remains a monument to modernist misfire, its vague, unoffending form the bastard child of a far sight and poor reach. Thankfully, the redevelopment of O’Neill Plaza has softened the library’s dimwitted facade, draping classic collegiate charm over the folds of ugly.

In a similar spirit of rectification, Stokes Hall opened this week. The building is Fulton Hall with a six pack, a more succinct stitching of the same English Gothic fabric. Its profile is handsome, but soft spoken. It’s an architectural Benjamin Button, born at an old age, with its stone facade mitigated by the wrinkles of simpler years. Essentially, Stokes Hall is an eraser mark, softening public contempt for Carney Hall and McElroy Commons as the university promptly blows away these eraser shaving structures in the years to follow. No one seems particularly weary of this unwriting of BC history. On the contrary, most people applaud the administration as it pops these abscesses, draining the pus of a dead era. And yet, what is this plague we so desperately hope to cure ourselves of?

Perhaps the clearest indication is in Stokes Hall’s lone Ivy League archway, conjoining its north and south wings. This simple architectural nod screams louder than the building’s $88 million stature, and there’s a richness its marble-decked interior can only dream of exuding. While most features of the building only mirror what has been, this feature is entirely unique on our campus. It’s the reclaiming of a phrase John F. Kennedy charged the University with in his 1956 commencement address: the “Jesuit Ivy.”

How now can we revile our tradition of servitude to the Irish working class of Boston? How now can we dislodge the stones we were built upon, and rebuild ourselves from the ground up, just as we rebuilt Gasson Hall? Saint Mary’s is crumbling. The backbone of a simple Jesuit institution in Chestnut Hill, MA is broken under the weight of everything it promises to be. Stokes Hall is more than just a palace for the humanities; it’s the first vertebrae of the new BC. I am not suggesting the secularization of what 150 years has claimed divine, but rather a brave expansion of a Jesuit institution. BC can only be made master through its servitude to higher education.

This is why O’Neill Library feels wrong. It refused to conform to the past, but then allowed itself to be subdued by it. It’s the hard face of the modernity, bereaved of any brilliance. Stokes Hall, on the contrary, heavily conforms to the distant past, while unrooting the nearer one. It anchors our university to the unrealized potential Kennedy spoke of in 1956.

So how then can BC become the Jesuit Ivy? We must step forward bravely through the next decades. The era of merely building in a manner that hopes to better frame Gasson Hall has expired. Our university must adopt a new language of iconic architecture, just as MIT did with Frank Gehry’s Ray and Maria Strata Center in 2004.

BC is unsure whether to continue posing as a small liberal arts college or admit itself to be a large research institution—it buries this insecurity under its thick stone facades. However, the only way we can truly sort out our identity is to take up the pencil and draw something bold with it. The exuberant spirit of expansion on campus can be the means BC is looking for to articulate its position as the Jesuit Ivy. It’s an opportunity to substantially decrease class sizes, create the research facilities necessary to begin growing the endowment, and embrace a contemporary design language to reposition the Jesuit tradition at the forefront of higher education. All we need is far sight and long reach.

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