The Space Scientist

GSD Prof Jerold S. Kayden ’75 seeks to change social space, one chair at a time.

Jerold S. Kayden ’75 is in the business of social space. And this past spring, he turned it into a science.

An urban planner and Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design at the Graduate School of Design, Kayden decided to turn his scientific attention to his own community last year. Students were complaining about a lack of positive social spaces; Kayden’s research promised to give them realistic solutions.

Working with partner Martin Zogran and 19 students, he scoured the campus for places that fit their definition of a social space. The data, which is currently being refined, yielded 236 social spaces, 46 of which are in the Yard.

“The notion of social space is grander, larger and more inclusive than what we thought before,” Kayden says. For instance, even the space just in front of the John Harvard statue counts as a social space.

Each space was mapped, photographed, described, and entered into a database. The researchers classified the spaces into different categories, and conducted interviews of passersby at some of the stops. Then, after figuring out what was available, the team moved on to postulate what could be.

Four interventions were planned.

First, Public Information. Kayden proposed creating a website that would contain information on each campus social space. Visitors could search for a space that meets their needs by filling out a simple online form. For instance, if they want to throw a party within a certain area, a search could return half a dozen possible locations. Someone looking for a place to have coffee for half an hour could yield the same number of options.

The second intervention, Programming, involves convincing people that spaces are worth using. Kayden proposes a day called “Space Talks 101.” The yearly event would feature 100 talks, 10 each hour, by esteemed speakers at social spaces all across campus. As people move from speaker to speaker, they’ll come to think of all the disparate spaces as a “network,” and minds will change.

“Designating a social space as such converts the thinking,” Kayden says.

The penultimate step, Amenities, involves an international design competition to revamp the official Harvard chair to make it fit for outdoors. Making seating more comfortable, creative, and versatile, Kayden thinks, could be a small, cost-effective step to increase the use of outdoor spaces.

Step four is the icing on the social space cake: Design. Kayden’s team has planned two design initiatives to help attract visitors to under-utilized spaces. One plan would revamp Currier House’s shuttle stop, adding heated benches, a Tether Ball court, an over-sized chess board, a coffee machine, and building blocks chairs. Kayden hopes the extra comforts will transform the shuttle stop from a cold, unwelcoming stop-over into a fun place to hang out.

The second plan is on a much larger scale. A completely transparent glass building could be built on the small grassy triangle next to Memorial Hall. This “Wintergarten,” as Kayden dubs it, would be connected to Loker and include places to eat and hang out, transforming a rarely tread-upon grassy knoll into an architectural marvel.

A space-y pipe dream? Not necessarily: the Provost, a few deans, and Special Assistant to the Dean Zachary A Corker ’04 have all seen the study. Echoing the rest, Corker pronounced it “great.”

Whether the plans are put into effect or not, the biggest achievement has already happened. “It is the systematic research of social space at Harvard,” says Kayden. And, based on available information, it’s the first.