Brandeis needs more nature

March 2, 2018

Recently I came across a large photo book, the photos depicting Brandeis through the decades until the late 2000s. It has fantastic images of this place pre-1948, when it was Middlesex University, a medical school primarily centered on the castle (as everyone learned if they took a tour with Admissions). Rows of metal tables with sinks and hoses for practicing filled the inside of what was once the beloved Castle Commons, which is now completely gone and replaced with the new residence hall. Post-1948, the Commons was upgraded, taking on a look somewhere between a 1950s living room and an office reception area. It may be the manufactured nostalgia of our age that is telling me that it looked far better than it ended up looking the last time I saw it before the Castle was torn down, but what an aesthetic!

The book contained images of the rest of the campus grounds, the style of which has been greatly altered over the years. Brandeis used to consist of cottages and smaller buildings farther apart from each other, a dream-image of a liberal arts college. Other interesting points include a reservoir where Usdan is now and well as an amphitheater between Abelson and the Fellows Garden.

Why bring any of this up? It is not that I would want us to return to that type of school or that it was clearly better for useless criticism, but to see Brandeis in its old splendor made me think about the look our school has adopted since its early days. I am a fan of the modern architecture of the 1960s through the 1980s, but I cannot say our campus displays the best of it. The more recent buildings are striking in their angles and lines, but look cold without a natural complement. The winter here certainly does not bring out the life in the stark brick facades and steel and glass edifices. According to a survey or two done over the years, we’re not known for the beauty of our buildings, and although in isolation many are wonderfully modern, on the whole, the reputation has credence.

The one thing that certainly stood out in those old photos of campus was the connection with nature: wide expanses of grass, trees, making the place look quieter, more serene and calmer. Imagine if we placed a few more perennials around to create a more intimate space, maybe on the edges of Chapels Field and the Great Lawn. Adding shorter trees and shrubs in places around the science complex and in the Fellows Garden and any spot of green in between pathways would break up anyone’s line of sight. I know that this cannot happen overnight, but there is a trend of trees being removed that, although I am sure it occurs for legitimate reasons, might create an uneasy feeling through drawing attention to stark, modern buildings and the open spaces that surround them.

If I had the money, resources, and time, I would make the areas in between our buildings as close to small forests as possible. Cleaner air, quieter outdoor space (not that it is loud by any measure), the comforting embrace of nature. These are all things that would make our campus prettier and more comfortable. It would make spaces fuller, cast more beautiful shadows in the summer, and provide even more shade in the summer and spring to encourage people to lay outside. It’s all about complementing the modern architecture with myriad varieties of flora. That, and I would pay to paint the buildings around campus with streaks of vibrant colors. That is another project in itself.

It is not that the architecture is bad; it only calls for more foliage. It needs to be complemented with an abundance of trees, hedges, bushes, anything. We’ll all feel more comfortable and at home while bringing back that old spirit of nature that the campus used to have.

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