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On Architecture: a look at the Shapiro Center at Brandeis University

Posted by Your Town  June 8, 2010 09:20 AM

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On the weekends like a lot of dads, I find myself having to entertain my two young boys. When the weather is nice, it’s not such a difficult task. But come late fall/winter or on a rainy day, I feel the inevitable pull of the mall.

But fortunately, the Boston area is full of interesting indoor spaces that you might not immediately think of. One of my favorite past times is visiting new buildings at our local colleges.

Admittedly, on the face of it, it seems self-serving for an architect to bring his two young boys to visit a campus building. But when you visit the Shapiro Center in Waltham at Brandeis University, you quickly realize that there is a lot to see and do- there even for a seven and two year old.

The first thing that you notice when you enter the campus is that unlike many New England colleges, Brandeis University is not organized around a quadrangle. Instead, the buildings are strewn loosely about and connected by a meandering loop road. As a result of this layout, before the Shapiro center was built in 2004, there was no “there” there on the campus.

As the architect of the building Charles Rose explains, “We wanted to place student life at the center of the campus”. The new building is located at the intersection of the Upper and Lower Campus which puts it at the geographic center of the campus. The new building has a theater, computer library, recital hall, club rooms, book store and café. By collecting all of these activities and placing them under one roof, the new campus center has become the heart of student life at Brandeis.

As you pass the main gate and walk up the loop road, the Shapiro Center is visible to the right. The building is slightly elevated and has an appropriate institutional quality, dignified but not at all over-bearing. A gentle bend in the mass of the building which makes the building appear to embrace the front yard, is a welcoming gesture to visitors. Seen through the eyes of an architect, the building from above has the shape of a butterfly, or two flattened V-shapes The front flattened V-shape is clad in limestone and glass and contains a bookstore, café and the main entry. This wing is reminiscent of a large porch over-looking the front lawn of a house where the children play. In contrast, the other V-shape wing is very different in character. It contains an auditorium and computer laboratory. Because both of these spaces are more introspective in focus, there are far fewer windows on this side. The so-called “back” of the building is rendered in aged copper panels which gives it a surprising sculptural quality. It certainly doesn’t look like any other building on campus. Instead, as the architect explains, the irregular faceted surfaces are meant to evoke the rocky outcrops that exist on the wooded campus. The two V-shaped wings are connected at the center by a dramatic three-story high atrium space. This soaring space is suffused in natural light which seemingly comes from all directions. Open stairs, ramps and catwalks invite visitors upwards to the second floor. On that level, visitors can walk outside onto a terrace and look back over the main entrance and front lawn.

Even though Brandeis is a private university, the campus center is a public building and is almost always open to visiting. On a typical weekend morning, the café and bookstore are filled with students and visitors having their coffee and lounging about. Students tap away at their laptops on comfortable couches and lounge chairs which are informally spread throughout. And a few students, like sleepy cats on their favorite perch, have found comfortable nooks for reading and relaxing. There is a pleasant white noise created by all of the different activities which take place in the main atrium space. As it turns out, this is a good thing because it dampens the loud noises coming from my two boys as they began to happily explore the environment. They climb up the long staircases and criss-cross over the narrow bridges located three stories above ground, alternately playing hide and seek and tag. They take a moment here and there to look down over railings, clearly enjoying being taller than everyone. Meanwhile, I am quite content to have my coffee and find a vantage point where I can watch the boys.

I daydream for a moment, and contemplate how enjoyable it would be to design a student center. For, this is a program type where the principal challenge is to create an environment that will foster interaction among students, faculty, staff and visitors. Generally, this means that there are fewer walls and other barriers than you would find in a typical building. Instead, the spaces are typically interconnected and allow for the positive friction that can result from different people coming together in one place. And with so many different activities taking place under one roof, you have all the ingredients for a building that is full of vitality. If the palpable energy which emanates from the Shapiro Center is enough to lift up this tired dad, I think it is worth visiting and experiencing.

Stephen Chung is a Boston architect whose work can be found at www.coolspaces.tv and www.stephenchung.com

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