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