It’s been called a Stack of Books building. It’s been called the Jenga building. Its descriptions have ranged from “ugly” to “out of place” to “jarring” and from “outstanding” to “uniquely idiotic” to “elaborate” to “a spectacular new addition to the Boston skyline.”
“It” is the newest, biggest, 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 roughly three years of construction.
BU Today spoke with two key figures in the controversial design of the building, both from KPMB Architects in Toronto—Luigi LaRocca, founding principal and project manager, and KPMB partner Paulo Rocha, the design lead.
With Luigi LaRocca and Paulo Rocha
BU Today: Are you surprised the building design has elicited such strong reactions?
Luigi LaRocca: No, we’re not surprised. When we first presented to the BU committee, Dr. Brown was there and others. The video ended with a shot from Fenway, seeing the building from Fenway Park, and when it ended, he said, ‘Play it again.’ That’s when we knew we were onto something. It was very clear from early discussions that there was no question this was going to cause some kind of controversy. It’s just not a Boston building. It’s out there. It calls attention to itself. It’s unabashed at doing that.
Paulo Rocha: But to be clear, we don’t go out and seek negative attention on our building. I think the intent from the [design] competition was designing a building that was an icon for BU and for Boston. Our mandate was to do something really special for the University. What’s surprising me is how many people have become converts to the building after a negative reaction initially, and how it’s changed their opinion. It’s a pretty dynamic building. It’s playful. It’s not lockstep, it’s not what people are used to.
BU Today: For people who still dislike it, who just think it’s ugly, weird, bizarre, what would you say to them?
Rocha: I’d try to get them to understand the rationale behind it. It was about creating a building that gave back to the people using it. These stacked neighborhoods of the building create opportunities for people to connect back to the city, to go out on the terrace facing the city. We wanted to connect the exterior to the city. Not all buildings can do that. I think there is a deeper story behind the building. It was not just that it would look cool. There is always the group of people who will never see it. Architecture—a lot of it is subjective. We can’t be defensive about it. We don’t want to design something that’s been there. This building is about its place, its time, it’s about the people it houses, about being on the river and connecting to the city.
BU Today: We have heard people call it the Jenga building, and others say it resembles a stack of books. Tell us your inspiration.
Rocha: It’s a vertical campus. [This was] an opportunity to break down the scale of the building into vertical neighborhoods. The building is interconnected with stairs, from the lower level to the 17th floor. Most people won’t walk the whole building, but they will walk two or three floors. It gives the departments, and there are five departments in the building, a little bit of identity, by creating this movement in the building that gives it a dynamic presence.
LaRocca: The floor plan rotates around as you go up, so that’s why you get this feeling that creates these blocks that cantilever in a few directions. As you go up, you see the building change every five feet.
BU Today: Is there one exterior feature, something about the outside of the building, you are most jazzed about?
Rocha: We love the exterior, the mirroring is what really affects the overall reception of the building. There are certain moments of the day, when it’s a bright blue sky, when it looks like the building is almost hovering there. As you look up from the street, you are looking up at the reflection of the terraces. That really hit its mark beyond what we anticipated.
BU Today: What about the interior?
LaRocca: This is a tough one for Paulo. He likes it all too much.
Rocha: We always designed the building to be porous and open to the BU campus. Students do not have an idea what’s going on inside other buildings. We wanted to turn this around so people have an idea of what is going on inside. The collaborative spaces are all projected to the street. We put a lot of emphasis on spaces of collaboration, where people interact. The corners are also open to everyone—no corner offices. Corners are collaboration spaces. And if there are terraces off the corners, that’s where you access the terrace.
BU Today: Can you talk about the massively wide staircase on the first floor?
Rocha: It was a move that was really about circulation, movements. It was about arriving from the east and getting up to the second floor. We think of it as a way to express this open collaboration. There are terraces on the staircase, every three steps is a platform. It’s a destination. It will be a place where we think a lot of people will sit. Each terrace is a zone where you can get together with your peers. The intent is it can be used as a path to travel from ground to second, but you’re more likely to use the butterfly stairs if that’s all you want. It’s quicker. These are stairs more as collaboration spaces.
BU Today: Did building an emissions-free building present any unique challenges?
LaRocca: We knew we could do it; it wasn’t challenging. We’d done it before. It’s a real testament to Dennis Carlberg [BU’s associate vice president for sustainability] to not only advocate, but to find the business case to give the University the opportunity to do this. It’s really remarkable. Every university has sustainability goals, but BU is really up there.
BU Today: After all this time, are you finally ready for the public to start using this building?
Rocha: We’re really excited about seeing this building full of students, seeing how it’s going to be used. We think it’s going to be successful.
BU Today: The views from up high are incredible.
LaRocca: It’s pretty breathtaking, I have to say, when you’re out there.
Rocha: Because you’re a little removed from the Charles River, your perception of the river changes. You feel like you really are right on the river, and right in the city. It’s really spectacular, and just adds to the life of the building. For these students and faculty who will use the building, it will be an amazing place to come and work and spend time in.