April 24, 2015

Building a Legacy

Naturally loquacious, James McManus can remember the rare instance that left him speechless – when his alma mater chose his architecture firm in 1995 to build the new Hammes Bookstore and Eck Visitors’ Center.

“I just can’t convey what an honor it is to have the opportunity to contribute to the tradition and legacy that is Notre Dame.”

“It’s a thrill for me to be working there,” McManus said. “I just can’t convey what an honor it is to have the opportunity to contribute to the tradition and legacy that is Notre Dame.”

McManus, one of two principal architects for the Campus Crossroads Project, has developed an insider’s professional eye for what makes the Notre Dame campus unique over the last two decades that his S/L/A/M Collaborative firm has designed a good portion of its recent growth. The Connecticut-based group of about 200 architects specializing in health care and higher education projects also led the design of Coleman-Morse Center, Jordan Hall of Science, the largest classroom building on campus, Eck Hall of Law and the remodeling Biolchini Hall of Law.

Campus Crossroads, a $400-million project that is the largest in University history, includes more than 800,000 square feet of classroom, research, student facility, digital media, performance, meeting, event, and hospitality space in three buildings attached to the football stadium. The work began in November and is scheduled for completion in 2017.

“One of the things that makes Notre Dame special, I think, is the sense of place that the entire campus has,” McManus said. “There’s a tradition there that really is built on the framework that Father Sorin set back in the mid-1800s when he developed a rectilinear campus centered on quadrangles. That fundamental organizational principle has been faithfully followed through all these years, which you don’t get at a lot of campuses.”

“It’s not just the buildings that make the fabric of Notre Dame’s campus but the spaces between buildings – the way the quadrangles are spaced to create neighborhoods in the campus, to keep the feeling much more intimate and familial.”

McManus grew up in Connecticut and was the first in his family to attend Notre Dame. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers in Germany after graduating from the five-year architecture program in 1966.

Following a dozen years working at different firms, McManus and three partners in 1980 founded S/L/A/M Collaborative, which now has offices in Boston and Atlanta. He became president and chief executive officer in 1984, chairman in 2006 and chairman emeritus in 2012. His portfolio ranges from the Shriner’s Pediatric Hospital in Mexico City to the Marine Science Lab at the University of Connecticut to the School of Engineering at Norwich University in New Hampshire.

As co-leader on S/L/A/M’s many campus projects, McManus works extensively with the team of the University architect, the various construction groups and the end users. When you’re sitting across the table from a Nobel-prize winning scientist or a team of lawyers, he said you have to learn a lot about what they do to understand their building needs. Notre Dame clients tend to question each decision, he said, and expect a framework and materials that will last a long time, even if the building use evolves.

“Those expectations exceed what most other clients want,” he said. “Notre Dame builds buildings that will last 100 years.”

Architects must also balance other demands: a facility’s life-cycle cost, which includes operation and maintenance as well as initial building cost, environmental sustainability, universal access for persons with disabilities, and especially the fit within the overall campus.

Doug Marsh, the University architect, and Paul Kempf, senior director of facilities and maintenance, have worked closely with McManus for years. Marsh said McManus’ experience and calm demeanor have helped overcome the many challenges of complex, speedy projects. Kempf said what distinguished S/L/A/M architects was their appreciation for the past, which led them to scour the campus for collegiate Gothic details that could be incorporated in new designs to create “a sibling connection.”

“Previous architects had simplified the Gothic architecture and lost some of the essence of the older part of campus,” Kempf said. “This set a new standard that I believe you see in all our buildings going forward and raised the bar on expectations for our facilities.”

McManus said he’s had to tap all of this experience for the Crossroads project, which is four times the size of Jordan Hall and touches nearly every person on campus in some capacity. S/L/A/M has worked closely with professors and staff from the psychology, anthropology and music departments and Sacred Music at Notre Dame program, the academic units moving into the East and South buildings. Other meetings have involved student and career services, as well as RecSports, headed for the West building.

“Crossroads is interesting because people look at it and think they’re going to add seats to the stadium, but that’s not really what it’s about”

“Crossroads is interesting because people look at it and think they’re going to add seats to the stadium, but that’s not really what it’s about,” McManus said. Instead, the project will make the stadium a hub that reflects a balance between academic and athletic excellence and student life in an area close to classrooms that is now vacant most of the year.

“It’s a slightly different message than what a lot of colleges sell,” he said. “Yeah, football is important, but the majority of the project is aimed at enlivening that area of campus when there is not a football game.”

Another architect, 360 Sports, is part of the team for its expertise in athletic architecture. But McManus is most concerned about how the buildings fit and complement the feel of the campus.

“A lot of the detailing and proportions are takeoffs from other buildings on campus,” he said. “The collegiate Gothic style that Notre Dame uses depends heavily on proportion of buildings and the forms that are used – arches, the style of windows and the decorative treatment of cast stone associated with the brick – all those elements are going into Crossroads.”

As an example, McManus spoke about how the buildings are designed with various levels from multiple stepbacks from the street to the top. The first big stepback happens in line with the stadium concourse, which is the same height as the existing 1930 stadium that had a large bowl placed on top of it during the 1995 to 1997 expansion. The goal is to bring down the proportion, so that the eight-story building tops fit into their surroundings.

“We want to bring the apparent scale down so when you’re walking around that area you really feel like it’s a four-story building,” he said.

The tradition-inspired campus brick palette will match other buildings constructed on campus in the last 10 years. Notre Dame has its own proprietary brick supplied by an Ohio company. McManus said that though the bricks look similar, there are actually more than 30 different palettes on campus – “but they are all complementary, not jarringly different.”

This emphasis on the overall effect rather than dazzling and disjointed individual projects is not an accident, McManus said. On some campuses, there is a lot of dispersion and turnover in who controls projects and designs. At Notre Dame, Marsh and his team bring a stability that leads to a clear vision.

“They’ve been there a long time,” McManus said. “They are clear in their goals, desires and expectations for campus, and really look on themselves as custodians of a tremendous legacy.”