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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2006 Issue

Old School, New Space
Wellesley College and Van Valkenburgh Associates turn a parking lot into an ecological showplace.

By Allen Freeman

Old School, New Space Courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Alumnae Valley, the winner of a 2006 ASLA General Design Award of Excellence, is a Cinderella project. Starting in 1998 with a Wellesley College master plan, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates identified one of the most abused areas on the campus as an ecological opportunity. Wellesley raised funds and selected Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, to make over the 13.5 acres. Today a former slope where cars parked and oil trucks wheeled through is an undulating landscape that frames vistas, introduces new plant life, attracts wildlife, and provides a small greensward for casual games and special events.

Unlike Jefferson’s orthogonal mall at the University of Virginia—the model for many American universities—the Wellesley campus spreads out organically. With no apparent imposed logic, it is a land of discovery, a place where students find their own way. Van Valkenburgh’s new landscape builds on that idea, replicating the glaciated hills and valleys that surround it. The kicker is the way the women’s college has made up for having treated this particular patch of land as a stepsister. As Wellesley professor of art Peter Fergusson writes, the valley is not only for Wellesley, it is also about Wellesley.

The 500-acre campus started out as depleted farmlands. After the Civil War, Henry Fowle Durant and his wife, Pauline, pieced together several contiguous farms a dozen miles west of Boston and opened the school for women there in 1875. Familiar with the work of English landscape gardener Henry Repton, the Durants envisioned groves, dells, meadows, and greenswards and clustered the original buildings on a hill overlooking Lake Waban. In 1902 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. endorsed the founders’ concept of open valleys threaded with winding walkways and carriageways, and a 1921 master plan by Olmsted, landscape architect Arthur A. Shurtleff, and architect Ralph Adams Cram continued those concepts.

Gradually, and then emphatically, however, the automobile came to dominate and shape the campus in unplanned ways. Parked cars lined the winding roads, and small lots were paved near the classrooms and dorms. Access to the lots even seems to have influenced the design of a couple of buildings: Paul Rudolph’s 1958 Jewett Arts Center and the adjacent 1994 Davis Museum and Cultural Center by Rafael Moneo are built over a long continuous series of steps and plazas leading down a hill—toward a parking lot.

Today, instead, the steps descend into the carless landscape of Alumnae Valley.

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