Work is underway on phase two of improvements to Main Mall and University Boulevard, the two historic pedestrian axes on campus. The highlight will be the Pulse, a spectacular new fountain at the crossroads where the two meet.

“We call it the Crossroads, because it’s the symbolic junction of the two principal, historic axes on campus,” says Chris Phillips, Partner at design firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. “It’s where most people flow — collide, in a way.”

Phillips is standing at the junction of Main Mall and University Boulevard, at the spot where a new fountain his firm has designed will be installed this summer. It’s the figurative heart of the UBC campus, an intersection crossed by thousands of students, faculty and staff every day. It’s also one of the highest points on campus, with spectacular views of mountains and the sea in three directions.

Unfortunately, for many decades the Crossroads has been an unremarkable spot, the site of a rundown roundabout and a clump of unhealthy trees. But it’s about to get a major facelift — upgrades to Main Mall from the Koerner Library Plaza to University Boulevard were completed last year and the Crossroads, along with University Boulevard between West Mall and East Mall and Main Mall south to Thunderbird Boulevard, are next in line for a major renovation, to be completed by September of this year.

“We had this idea of it being a social place, a place where people can linger and hang out,” says Phillips. “It’s a crossroads, after all. So there will be seating, and a water feature that will have a nice warm edge to sit, so you’ll be able to meet at the fountain, so to speak. Also it gets a lot of sunshine, it’s a nice place to hang out.”

Under the guidance of Campus and Community Planning, and with input from a working group of campus staff, students and others, the design team came up with the concept of the Pulse, a fountain that will celebrate the daily rhythms and rituals of campus life.

“Sit here for a while and you’ll see students and professors dashing to and from classes,” explains Phillips. “People pass by in a hurry, cross paths with friends, say, ‘Sorry can’t wait, got to get to class.’ It’s a classic moment on campus. Main Mall is a hive of activity, then it dies off in between. So the fountain reflects that pulse — it only works during that 10-minute period when everyone is moving, then it stops.”

The water flow will be regulated by computers programmed to class breaks, to reflect the activity going on around the interesection. “So if you’re at the other end of campus and you’re busy talking to a friend and the fountain goes off, you know you’re late for class! You’ll be able to see it from either end of Main Mall or University Boulevard — the jets will be 12 feet high at the peak — so if you’re down at the Forestry Building and have to get to the Koerner Library, when the fountain stops, you know you’re late!”

The fountain lies at the heart of the academic campus. This second layer of meaning has been included in the design, in the form of the name of every faculty and department at UBC, inscribed in sheet metal running around the periphery.

“In their daily lives, many students or faculty only ever go to one department, again and again,” explains Phillips. “So this is a reflective moment to think about the greater work of academia, and your part within that. There is room left to inscribe other faculties and departments as the University grows. You’ll be able to see all the names for example— so the Faculty of Arts is Drama, Geography, History and so on. We want to celebrate this heart of UBC’s academic world in another subtle way.”

Main Mall and University Boulevard

“This is the main pedestrian corridor on campus, one of the main arteries, a broad tree-lined avenue that cuts across the heart of the campus,” says Dean Gregory, the university’s Landscape Architect. He is standing at the Crossroads looking north down Main Mall towards Howe Sound. “It ends in flagpole plaza, with great views of the mountains up Howe Sound. It’s one of the most memorable landscapes at UBC, and it will become even more so.”

As part of the recent upgrades, the red oaks on the west side of the mall were revitalized, and one that had been missing for years was replaced. “The most wonderful thing is that we got rid of the concrete planter curbs — collars that were strangling them, really impeding their growth. If you compare to the east side, the oaks there are much more impressive.”

As with the recent public realm upgrades to Agricultural Road, the roadways and concrete curbs along Main Mall have been replaced with decorative concrete pavers. These are flush with the grade, so they look like broad sidewalks instead of streets. Wooden benches will soon be installed on both sides of the mall, to encourage people to linger. 

“It will be a great place to sit and watch all the action,” says Gregory. “Historically, students have rushed along Main Mall. But it has more potential than just being a right of way — seating and new lighting will add to the ambience, and improve sustainability and the environmental quality, as well as safety. We are adding lights to illuminate the walkways, plus spotlights to showcase the wonderful tree canopies at night. It was very dark at night, now it’ll be a much more attractive space, day and night. It’s amazing that until now, the best people watching spot on campus never had any places to stop and enjoy the view!”

“With all these changes you begin to get a sense of the classic campus landscape, buildings in a picturesque landscape rather than framed by a grid of roads. We’re really just revealing and celebrating what was there. We’re lucky that we still have the historic bones of the campus, which were established by the 1914 Master Plan — many campuses have lost even that connection.”

Similar upgrades will be made to University Boulevard dropping down towards East Mall. This wide boulevard was historically lined with elms, most of which were knocked down by the remnants of Typhoon Freda on October 12, 1962; in the spring it will be replanted with new, Dutch Elm Disease-resistant trees.

Like The Crossroads, this stretch of University Boulevard is in poor condition now, with haphazard planting and parking on both sides. The road will be replaced with paving and lawn, plus more built-in seating around a central stepped water feature going down the hill towards Achievement Plaza, the new public space to be built next to the planned Alumni Centre at East Mall and University Boulevard.

“The design solution is really simple and conceptually strong,” says Gregory. “It will unify the campus, give it an integrated setting. The heart of our campus will finally have the dignity a university of this status deserves.”