Campuses and facilities
“It was about creating a building that gives back to the people who use it”
It’s been called a Stack of Books building. It was called the Jenga Building. His descriptions range from “ugly” to “out of place” to “shocking” and from “outstanding” to “uniquely silly” to “elaborate” to “a spectacular new addition to the Boston skyline”.
“It” is the newest, largest, and most energy-efficient building in Boston University’s history: the Center for Computing & Data Sciences. And after a celebration on December 8, it will officially open in January 2023 after nearly a decade of planning and about three years of construction.
UB today spoke to two key figures in the building’s controversial design, both from KPMB Architects in Toronto – Luigi LaRocca, Founding Director and Project Leader, and Paulo Rocha, KPMB Partner, Design Lead.
With Luigi LaRocca and Paulo Rocha
UB today: Are you surprised that the design of the building has generated such strong reactions?
Luigi LaRocca: No, we are not surprised. When we first introduced ourselves to the UB committee, Dr. Brown was there and others. The video ended with a shot of Fenway seeing the Fenway Park building, and when it ended he said, “Play it again.” That’s when we knew we were on to something. It was very clear from the first discussions that there was no doubt that this was going to cause some kind of controversy. It’s just not a Boston building. It is over there. He draws attention to himself. It’s shameless to do that.
Paulo Rocha: But to be clear, we don’t go out and seek negative attention on our building. I think the intention of the [design] competition was to design a building that was an icon for BU and for Boston. Our mandate was to do something really special for the University. What surprises me is how many people have converted to the building after an initial negative reaction, and how it has changed their opinion. It is quite a dynamic building. It’s playful. It’s not, it’s not what people are used to.
UB today: For the people who still don’t like it, who just think it’s ugly, weird, weird, what would you tell them?
Rock : I would try to make them understand the reasoning behind this. It was about creating a building that gives back to the people who use it. These stacked quarters of the building create opportunities for people to reconnect with the city, to go out on the terrace facing the city. We wanted to connect the outdoors to the city. Not all buildings can do this. I think there is a deeper story behind the building. It wasn’t just that it would look cool. There is always the group of people who will never see it. Architecture is largely subjective. We cannot be defensive about this. We don’t want to design something that already exists. This building speaks of its place, its time, the people it houses, being on the river and connecting to the city.
UB today: We’ve heard people call it the Jenga building, and others say it looks like a pile of books. Tell us your inspiration.
Rock : It is a vertical campus. [This was] an opportunity to break down the scale of the building into vertical quarters. The building is connected by stairs, from the lower level to the 17th floor. Most people don’t walk the whole building, but they walk two or three floors. It gives the departments, and there are five departments in the building, a bit of identity, creating this movement in the building that gives it a dynamic presence.
LaRocca: The floor plan rotates as you go up, which is why you get that feeling that creates these cantilevered blocks in a few directions. As you go up you see the building change every five feet.
UB today: Is there an exterior feature, something about the exterior of the building, that excites you the most?
Rock : We love the exterior, the mirror is what really affects the overall reception of the building. There are certain times of the day, when it’s bright blue skies, where it looks like the building is almost hovering over there. Looking up from the street, you look at the reflection of the terraces. It really served its purpose beyond what we had anticipated.
UB today: What about inside?
LaRocca: It’s difficult for Paulo. He likes it all too much.
Rock : We have always designed the building to be porous and open to the BU campus. The students have no idea what is going on inside the other buildings. We wanted to turn things around so people get an idea of what’s going on inside. The collaborative spaces are all projected onto the street. We put a lot of emphasis on collaborative spaces, where people interact. Corners are also open to all, no corner offices. The corners are collaborative spaces. And if there are terraces in the corners, that’s where you access the terrace.
UB today: Can you talk about the massively wide staircase to the first floor?
Rock : It was a movement that was really about circulation, movement. It was a question of arriving from the east and going up to the second floor. We think of it as a way to express this open collaboration. There are terraces on the staircase, every third step is a platform. It is a destination. It will be a place where we think a lot of people will sit. Each terrace is an area where you can meet up with your peers. The intent is that it can be used as a path to travel from floor to floor, but you’re more likely to use the butterfly stairs if that’s all you want. It’s faster. These are more stairs than collaborative spaces.
UB today: Did constructing an emission-free building present any unique challenges?
LaRocca: We knew we could do it; it was not difficult. We had already done that. This is a true testimony of Dennis Carlberg [BU’s associate vice president for sustainability] not just to advocate, but to find the business case to give the University the opportunity to do so. It is truly remarkable. Every university has sustainability goals, but BU is really up there.
UB today: After all this time, are you finally ready for the public to start using this building?
Rock : We’re really excited to see this building full of students, to see how it’s going to be used. We think it will succeed.
UB today: The views from up there are amazing.
LaRocca: It’s quite breathtaking, I must say, when you’re there.
Rock : Because you are a bit away from the Charles River, your perception of the river changes. You feel like you are really by the river and right in the center of town. It is truly spectacular and only adds to the life of the building. For those students and faculty who will be using the building, it will be an amazing place to come to work and hang out.
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