Improving the Public Realm

Thoughts from the SCUP 2014 North Atlantic Symposium
November 10, 2014
Credit: David Lamb

Managing Partner Frederick Bland was asked to present at the SCUP 2014 North Atlantic Symposium: “Building Excellence from the Ground Up: Stony Brook’s First 50 Years.” This symposium reflected on Stony Brook University’s rapid development into a leading public research university, examined several initiatives that transformed the Stony Brook campus, and the challenges and opportunities in maintaining a research university for the coming decades.

In the late 1990’s, Shirley Kenny, President of Stony Brook University, invited BBB to advise her on how to improve the public realm at the heart of the campus, the Academic Mall. The campus had been founded in the 1960’s, in the architectural age of Brutalism (aptly named). The buildings were rational and efficient but, well… brutal with cast-in-place concrete the defining campus vernacular. The landscaping was oriented to cars, not people. Acres of asphalt roads and walkways – not lawns, shrubs, and trees – defined the campus. President Kenny, the first non-scientist Stony Brook president, is a humanist (an English scholar). Her perspective of the campus was that its physical manifestation was so repellent it interfered with one of her principal goals: to build pride in the University and, ultimately, create a robust and sustaining alumni.

Therefore, BBB undertook the asignment to remake the public realm, the physical environment between the buildings. Beginning slowly with a pilot project at the entrance to the Academic Mall, a new fountain, a water rill surrounded by granite (a “stony brook”), and comfortable steps and ramps replaced un-unwelcoming and tired landscape. It created a “sense of place” at this critical pedestrian entry and was judged a big success.

Core Campus Projects

Academic Mall (1971) – Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library

Academic Mall (2000)

This project was followed by many others which began a radical transformation of the campus appreciated by students, faculty, and staff. Remarkable “before and after” photos document this successful process that could be a model for many other campuses with a deficient public realm.

Principal lesson learned: When a campus is defined by unattractive buildings, it is difficult to find funds to improve their physical appearance and because of their high capital costs they are consigned to a long life (therefore, it is critical that architects get it right the first time!). However, even at such campuses, dramatic and positive changes can be achieved with relatively small capital outlays by focusing on the space between the buildings - namely, the landscape – to create a quality public realm that adds great distinction and appeal.

Academic Mall (1990’s)