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Northeastern's campus ha been transformed into an urban oasis along Boston's Avenue of the Arts. Lush landscaping, pedestrian walkways, fountains, and sculpture are creating a park-like atmosphere.
(PHOTO BY LEN RUBENSTEIN)

Architecture Transforms Campus Life

By Robert Campbell

On a corner of the Northeastern University campus, Cambridge architect Kyu Sung Woo has created a virtual Italian Hill town.

The subliminal message here is important. It says that care has been lavished on these buildings, that their future users and occupants are being treated with respect, and that the buildings — and the university they represent — are intended to endure.

He has grouped a new dormitory and a health sciences building around an artificial hill that is really a 300 car parking garage. The $85 million complex is an ingenious Rubik's Cube of interlocking parts. Dorm, garage, and health labs are packed together so tightly that part of the dorm is cantilevered over part of the garage. The garage, though, is all but invisible, because its roof is a lush, green, undulating garden.

You climb to that garden on a grand outdoor stair, a great place for noshing or schmoozing. You think you're climbing a hill, but you're actually scaling the invisible garage. When you get to the top, you're in the garden, more than a half-acre in size.

Both buildings open onto it. What Woo has done is pack a lot of stuff onto a small urban site without losing the feeling of an almost pastoral college quad.

Woo is a Korean-born architect. He is known for designing, from his small Cambridge office, to the entire Olympic Village for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He has also done art museums in Korea, and he recently completed a handsome trio of rural, wood-sided dorms at Bennington College in Vermont.

Also new is an "artists' residence," a dorm with studios and a gallery, for the Massachusetts College of Art. At Northeastern, Woo was the design architect, working with architect of record Rothman partners.

Architecturally, the Northeastern buildings are clean and modern but never dull. The Behrakis Health Sciences Center is eight stories of labs and classrooms. It's clad entirely in glass, simply framed but elegantly proportioned. The glass gives the building a soft, diaphanous look, especially where it sweeps around in a curve as if wrapping the artificial hill.

The dorm, by contrast, is a rectangular red-brick structure. On one side, it faces the hilltop garden, and on the other, it lines Ruggles Street along an edge of the campus. It contains 293 beds, most of them in four-bedroom suites. It's a big building, but Woo has found ways to break it down visually into smaller parts, so it won't overwhelm the neighborhood across the street.

It's encouraging to see that money has been spent on things like carefully detailed granite curbs and steps, which too often are executed in a cheaper concrete, a material that deteriorates quickly in our climate.

The subliminal message here is important. It says that care has been lavished on these buildings, that their future users and occupants are being treated with respect, and that the buildings — and the university they represent — are intended to endure.

Walking through this part of Northeastern, especially at night, can be a revelation if you haven't been there in a while. Old-timers may remember an era when Northeastern seemed to consist entirely of treeless plains of black asphalt punctuated by drab buildings with pale gray brick walls. The place looked, and felt, like a penitentiary.

The transformation in recent years has been amazing. The gray buildings are still there, but they look much better because they are foils to a newly landscaped world of trees, shrubs, paths, and grass. And there's an overall order that didn't exist before.

Woo's buildings are part of a master plan for this part of Northeastern, developed by another Boston architect, William Rawn. Rawn designed a quad of curvy orange brick dorms next to Woo's work. The two groups of buildings work together to help define a wide pedestrian walkway, which has become the spine of Northeastern's West Campus. More than mere architecture, this is intelligent urban design.

At night, the glass corners of the top floors of Rawn's dorms are illuminated from within to glow brightly above this walk, like beacons in the sky or artificial moons, something to navigate by. Woo's curved-glass Behrakis Center becomes another path-finding lantern at night. Strolling down the central walk is a little like passing a row of Japanese lanterns at a celebration.

Woo's and Rawn's buildings seem to signal to each other in another way, too. Rawn's dorms are clad in stripes of two colors of brick. Woo uses the same brick colors in different parts of his own complex, but without imitating the stripes. It's a kind of friendly architectural conversation, and it works as a metaphor for the interactive social life these new buildings are intended to nurture.

For years now, Northeastern has been transforming itself from a commuter campus — once among the largest in the country — into a smaller school where more of the students live on campus. As new dorms open and fill with residents, the social life of the university's outdoor spaces grows more populous and lively. A once visually dismal university has become a pleasure to visit.

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Behrakis Health Sciences Center
  Originally published as "Garage in disquise give quad a pastoral feel at Northeastern," in the Boston Sunday Globe; December 8, 2002; p. N4. Reprinted by permission of Robert Campbell.

         

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