“They’re putting in new sod again?”
Almost all of us at Boston College have grumbled about our University’s seemingly endless slate of beautification projects and “campus improvements.” There’s a light-hearted side to these complaints, and usually we don’t mean much by them. But many of us, myself included, have sometimes wondered: What is the logic behind maintaining a beautiful campus? Can we justify spending $78 million on a building like Stokes Hall at a time when the financial burden of college has become prohibitive for many? Expenditures like these can be quite difficult to reconcile with our sense of practicality.
Our school’s physical beauty is one of its most defining characteristics, and questions about this beauty are thus questions about BC itself. Others have recognized as much: critics such as The Heights’ own Nate Fisher have tied complaints about University buildings to broader denunciations of BC’s philosophy and mission. Whether one agrees with Fisher or not, his basic assumption—that the way our campus looks has deep symbolic and almost spiritual meaning—rings true.
Symbolism matters. As rationally and spiritually oriented as we are, our lives are firmly bound to our physical surroundings. To truly grasp metaphysical realities, we need to see them embodied, to touch and feel them. In Christianity, this truth is expressed through the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and is reinforced every time we experience the Eucharist: simple bread can become God Himself. The “incarnational ethos” helps explain why Christians have always seen churches and cathedrals—built from materials as mundane as stone and wood—as capable of communicating deep spiritual realities.
The importance of symbolism doesn’t stop with churches. The places where we live, work, and study convey a message, both to us and to the world, about who we are and how we view ourselves. As Fr. Dwight Longenecker, S.J., points out, to discover what any society throughout history has valued, one needs only to find its most ornate and beautiful buildings. In today’s world, bank skyscrapers, sports stadiums, and shopping malls are often the most expensive and monumental structures we build. This speaks volumes about our civilization’s commitments, and one cannot help but feel that something in the environment we have created is out of balance.
To be sure, some of our society’s architectural and aesthetic choices are perfectly reasonable. It makes sense for a charity to allocate more money toward providing food and clothes than toward building ornate offices, and it makes more sense for a school to pay for skilled teachers than for a lavish new gym. But we need places in our society where noble enterprises are matched with inspiring physical settings. We need to be reminded, on a material level, that we are called to a higher purpose—we need soaring towers to chart paths for our spirits to follow.
So when BC builds a beautiful, new monument to the humanities, it is sending a dramatic message. It is telling society and students alike that our mission is irreplaceably important, and that we are fully committed to many more centuries of enriching the human mind and spirit. By opening an edifice like Stokes Hall, BC also extends a profound challenge to everyone who studies inside. “Live up to the calling laid out in these stones,” the University says. “Your work is so significant, so pivotal, that we created this building for you. Don’t fail in your mission, don’t let our hope in you be misplaced.” If we went to school among plain concrete buildings, overgrown gardens and mangled grass, BC would still be an inspiring place, filled with inquiry and reflection. But our higher purpose would be harder to remember. Our tenacious enterprise would sometimes feel foolish, and our confidence in the human spirit would sometimes feel inappropriate. It would be much easier to sink into the mistaken belief that our university is only a utilitarian job factory, meant simply for a hardheaded accumulation of skills.
The beauty of our school, then, is no waste. Gasson’s turrets, Bapst’s windows, Higgins’ glass roof, and Stokes’ wood paneling all function as both messages to society and as ways to strengthen our own spirits. As long as we remember that our school’s physical splendor is meant to challenge us to equally splendid intellectual and spiritual growth, the University’s investment in beauty is deeply worthwhile.
Yes, the constant rearrangement of sod, the planting and replanting of flowers, and the new staircase behind St. Mary’s can at times feel like excessive undertakings. But these highly visible and much-maligned projects make up a very small proportion of BC’s overall efforts to maintain stately buildings and grounds. The greater purpose behind the University’s commitment to aesthetics is a noble one. Grounded in a deep understanding of symbolism’s power to mold human hearts and minds, BC’s physical beauty calls us to take reflective, engaged, and energetic ownership of our education here
Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Height Photo