City Residents Laud Knafel Plans Overhaul

Harvard drastically changed course on its Knafel Center project and proposed a totally redesigned building to the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District Commission (MCNCDC) last Monday, in response to the board's sharp criticism of the original proposal.

The commission--a city board with the authority to forbid construction--responded very positively to the shift, in a turnabout from the critical tone that had characterized previous meetings.

"[The new Knafel center] just couldn't be a more wonderful or exciting project for us to be considering," said one commissioner.

At the previous commission meeting, board members criticized Harvard's original plan for the building's size as well as its design, echoing vehement critiques of the proposal by Knafel's neighbors. The meeting--which came after two months of hearings on the proposal--was meant to precede the commission's final judgment.

Now, rather than await the board's judgement on the old proposal and risk a total rejection of its plans, Harvard has chosen to add months to its design process--which is already approaching its third year--by beginning anew.

The new plan proposes two four-story buildings of rounded glass and terra cotta. As in the old plan, the buildings will face each other across Cambridge Street, joined by a tunnel below the street.

But the change, from five-story rectangular buildings, reduces the square footage of the center by more than ten thousand feet and the height by 12 feet.

It reflects a new approach by the architect, Henry N. Cobb of Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners, who intended the earlier proposed building to blend into the residential area on the edge of the Harvard campus.

"The earlier plan was designed on the assumption that a building as quiet and recessive and deferential as possible would be seen by the community as being most appropriate," Cobb said.

Listening to the complaints of commissioners and the public, Cobb said he realized his judgement was mistaken.

"They implicitly invited an architecture less recessive, more innovative, more assertive," he said.

The redesigned center will include the same facilities as the previous scheme. But many of the commissioners have already said they like its appearance much better.

"I think the building is just a much more interesting building for this particular edge of our neighborhood," said Steven Cohen, the vice-chair of the board.

But some Cambridge residents say the commission has pledged its support too hastily.

"I would have hoped that the commission would have listened to the neighbors before expressing this much pleasure with the approach," said John Pitkin, who heads the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association. "It's hard to react to a design that's not fully fleshed out."