City Rejects Harvard's Designs for Building
Historical Commission finds plans for 90 Mt. Auburn Street property unsatisfactory
Harvard's plan for a new contemporary building at 90 Mt. Auburn Street was unanimously opposed by the Cambridge Historical Commission last Thursday night, but Harvard officials working on the project are still confident that something will eventually be erected in that location.
After three hours of presentation and discussion that lasted until 1 a.m., the Commission voted to deny the Certificate of Appropriateness necessary to move forward with the project-a strong blow to Harvard, particularly following a fairly positive review by the Harvard Square Advisory Committee February 15.
"We are disappointed," said Scott Levitan, the director of University and commercial real estate for Harvard Planning and Real Estate (HPRE).
An angled wire mesh and glass facade is the defining feature-and point of contention-of the structure, designed by Austrian architect Hans Hollein, dean of the Vienna Academy of Arts and a recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture. His designs are known for fitting into the aesthetic and historical settings of a city, but at the same time, are considered fairly radical.
Hollein has previously designed only two buildings in the U.S.
"We knew that the design was provocative and that it would generate a lot of dialogue," Levitan said.
Though University officials were disappointed by the decision, they said it did not come as a complete surprise.
"Harvard had been aware of concerns by the director of the Commission and a number of residents," said Mary H. Power, Harvard's senior director of community relations.
These concerns immediately became clear at the meeting, as committee members and residents questioned the fundamental nature of the design and the need for Harvard to go to Vienna in looking for an architect.
"There was a fundamental gap of understanding between what we see as contextual, and what they do," said Travis A. McCready, Harvard's director of community relations for Cambridge.
In December, Harvard Square was designated a conservation district, and the Hollein building marks the first test of language in the designation which encourages contextual contemporary design. Levitan said that the language is "amorphous" and that one positive aspect of the project was the opportunity to better define what the designation meant.
"We did have some really amazing conversations," Levitan said. "The design got people to think of issues in Harvard Square that maybe they weren't talking about before."
"If there is a silver lining, it is that this project has moved the needle in terms of people understanding what the Conservation District means," he said.
Those in favor of contemporary architecture are quick to point out that the Square is not monolithic, but has evolved over 300 years.
One Cambridge resident, Donald Fleming, gave a visual presentation of what he thought were examples of non-contextual architecture around the world, placing the 90 Mt. Auburn Street building in the continuum. This caught some audience members off guard.
"Procedurally speaking, it was odd that at a hearing the commission would allow a public comment to consist of a slide show," McCready says. "It was really strange."
Another Cambridge resident, Peter Roudebush, said that he thought the building would just become another chain store haven.
"Harvard is killing off the diversity and character of Harvard Square," he said in an interview.
Harvard officials who have been working on the project said they had not yet recovered from the Commission's vote and were unsure what the next step would be. They said the Commission's written findings-due out in the next month-might provide direction for the project.
But Levitan said that the message regarding the current façade was pretty clear, and that future plans for the building would have to be radically different.
"I don't think we need to see it in writing," he said, adding that HPRE is optimistic that it will be able to erect a new building on the site because most members did not seem to be opposed to granting a demolition permit for the current wooden structure.
Levitan said he does not feel that Harvard should have given the architect more guidance in creating a building that would be acceptable to the Commission.
"We hired Hans Hollein because we wanted a Hans Hollein building," he said. "We're reluctant to hold the architect's hand while he is putting pencil to paper."
-Staff writer Zachary R. Heineman can be reached at email@example.com.