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COLUMN: In Defense Of Concrete

Heights Columnist

Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 02:02

Our time at Boston College is defined by construction projects—Stokes Hall, St. Mary’s, Shea Field, and many others. Before my time, Higgins, and after my time, the new Plex. No two BCs look the same. For alumni and current students, the universal characteristic of their various campuses is a constant state of flux. Most freshmen will have no frame of reference when I extoll the virtues of the “old” Quad, and I never knew the Dustbowl. But these changes happen for a reason. The old Quad and the old O’Neill Plaza were working fine—BC changed them on purely aesthetic grounds. It seems the administration is never content with how the campus looks. Maybe nothing will measure up to Gasson (not even Gasson itself, as recent renovations would indicate), or maybe there’s been a big shakeup at the top about what looks good for BC. Wherever that restless desire came from, construction projects at the very least look good for an admissions tour. Construction equals new buildings equals state of the art equals what have you built lately, Harvard? BC has that Brand New Thing that will give my child the most advanced College Experience technology, why don’t you? The University has an unappeasable obsession with how it is seen by the outside world. Such is even the case with our Plex-bound, weather-be-damned-this-outfit-looks-great selves. Constructing, redesigning, and renovating one’s exterior appearance is hard-wired into our identity. BC double-majors in design. Our time at Boston College is defined by construction projects.

This column is about design, in particular why the current designs of O’Neill Plaza and the Quad demand more scrutiny than they’ve had up to this point. Somebody designed them this way as opposed to that way, and those designs impact our lives. There’s a bit more grass now, but was it worth sacrificing the old designs’ virtues? Conventional design of public space won big on the new O’Neill Plaza. Finally, grass! Trees! “It actually looks nice now!” “It feels like there’s life in it!” The old plaza couldn’t claim to have any Insta-pretty qualities. It came with the library, living in the (literal) shadow of a Brutalist building that positively reeked of modern art. Cue shudder.

But the modern feel of the plaza tied together all of the buildings around it. The library opened up effortlessly into the old plaza, which was just modern-looking enough to make the library seem like it was actually a part of campus, and more approachable because of it. The new plaza, with its apologetic trees lathered over the facade of the library, tries to hide the library, acknowledging its ugliness and blocking the walkway in front of the library from the plaza, and therefore renders it less functional. The building feels less a part of the campus, and its ugliness becomes more pronounced. The apology trees’ effect is the opposite of their intention.

The modern “concrete desert” of the old plaza also served the plaza’s function as a space to walk through. By keeping the material uniform throughout, the plaza could be crossed from any point at any angle. Not so with the grass. The plaza couldn’t be all grass for fear of it quickly turning into mud, so the University cut a jagged diagonal swath through it, effectively telling you how it should be walked through. And having this mix of concrete and grass also makes it more difficult, or at the very least less natural, for the plaza to serve as a place for student functions, which it used to do very well. Students would often sit on the wide tier stairs at functions, giving the plaza the feel of a Greek amphitheater. In those moments, the plaza felt like a central piece of the University. And the old plaza was always covered in chalk advertisements for various functions, an ingenious and colorful tribute to BC’s many student organizations and the vitality they bring to our campus. That made the plaza feel more alive than the new plaza’s shrubs, which scream “sidewalks outside of an office complex,” ever could.

Where the student body cheered the old plaza and its scary modernity being burned at the stake, reaction to the new Quad was a bit more negative. “If they put the trees back, I’d be okay with it.” It’s certainly easier to walk through now, but so many of the qualities that made it a good fit were lost. It no longer feels old, the lumpy brick replaced by impersonal sidewalk. Modernity worked with the old plaza, but shouldn’t the center of a 150-year-old University feel 150 years old? It used to have dips and bumps and sloped down and had a little wear and tear to it, but gosh it felt like home. Now the trees and benches we hung out around have been spread out to the point of uselessness. The Quad feels less like a space to meet with other people and more like an anonymous space to walk through (that weird fountain-y thing is gone too, which I’ll miss.) In a way, it feels now like people used to feel about the old O'Neill Plaza. Uniqueness replaced by sterility. But hey, there’s a good deal more grass, which is always a good thing.

The major victims of these architectural projects are student organizations, true campus treasures BC loves to claim they help. Between the administration’s plopping sheets of grass onto the plaza and pulling the trees out of the Quad, student organizations lost two extremely efficient ways to advertise. Don’t you dare try to hang any banners between what trees and lampposts are still on the Quad; someone will be by to cut it down dutifully within the day. Whether this was their intention or not, the administration has effectively found a way to severly limit student organizations’ capacity for expression and speech. The human presence in these spaces is gone by way of the student groups effectively being muscled out. And to replace it came an insidious kind of ugliness, a faux-pretty one that’s sterile, impersonal, and dead. Forget scapegoating the lifeless O’Neill Library, there’s an embalmed corpse with caked-on makeup lying in its front lawn.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.

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