Students protest the axe
Recently, 200 baby dolls and one professor got naked to support some trees that may be removed for construction of the new Gates Center for Computer Science. The center of the conflict brewing around the new plan is the removal of a grove of trees between the Purnell Center and Doherty Hall.
“Right now the campus has embarked on a major and massive recreation of the West Campus quad,” said Ralph Horgan, associate vice provost of Campus Design and Facilities Management. According to Horgan, the largest problem facing the new design process is the 90-foot drop between the Cut and the planned site for the Gates building.
Horgan’s goal is to create an open space that allows for visibility of the new building and also develops some unity for the first time between the upper and lower sections.
Separating the two spaces is a wooded area that is familiar to many students, especially art students taking Eco-Art or Environmental Sculpture with art professor Bob Bingham. The area is often filled with student sculptures, including a current piece featuring about 200 plastic baby dolls.
Sophomore art student Teresa Chen tied the dolls to the trees to protest a plan to change the site. Chen and some of her fellow art students don’t like the idea of removing the projects or the space as an area available for installing projects.
“There’s artwork in [the grove],” said first-year drama student Peter Albrink. “And it’s not a good thing that the artwork’s coming down for another building.”
Over winter break, workers removed some trees next to Doherty Hall in order to perform renovations to accommodate a new wing of chemical engineering classrooms, a new elevator and stairwell, and heating and cooling ducts. Seeing the removal of the trees, Bingham climbed and hugged the biggest of the trees wearing nothing but the hard hat required in the demolition zone.
“My heart just sunk,” Bingham said, recalling when he saw workers with chainsaws cutting down the trees.
“I went and got my hard hat on, and as I was walking back out I realized, I just have to do it. So I, you know, took my clothes off. I had my hard hat on.”
After Bingham shimmied up the biggest of the trees, the embarrassed workers backed off.
Bingham sees Campus Design’s plans to remove the trees as conflicting. “I’m supposed to be teaching environmental literacy to students and they come in and do things like this,” he said.
Though part of the Gates construction, the removal of the remaining trees hits close to home for many students on campus who feel a personal connection to the area.
“I think [the trees are] good for the campus,” said Elena Goldstein, a sophomore environmental engineering student.
Likewise, the trees have an important environmental effect, as outlined in another art project that designated the area the Carnegie Nature Reserve. According to a large sign at the bottom of the grove, the area is comprised mostly of honey locust trees, a species that retain water well, helping to prevent flooding and erosion.
Bingham has proposed an alternate plan of installing a rain garden down the hill along the edge of the Purnell Center. The garden would be another example of biological engineering at work and would also help with flooding in Pittsburgh.
However, the plan is still up in the air. Some 100-year-old sewer pipes run under the parking lot at the bottom of the hill, and Pittsburgh Sewer and Water warns that the old structures may not be able to support new buildings and landscapes.
Discussion of the several conflicts involved will continue tomorrow when the Campus Design and Facility Development department will meet with landscape architects and Bingham to discuss the design for the grove of trees and also the rain garden.
Connecting the upper and lower campuses is also a concern of both Campus Design and students. “It’-s unfortunate that they have to cut it down,” said sophomore art student Spenzor Longo, “but to make the campus itself function better, it can be seen, I think, as a positive thing.”
Nevertheless, it is a plan that Ralph Horgan wishes to tackle. “The vision is bold, the vision is big,” he said. “And I think from my perspective, the vision is right for where this campus is today and where it wants to grow.”