We are not worried that the University will repeat the same mistakes, but after the presentation of sketches for Allston’s first new building—a science complex—students cannot help but wonder if the University will make all new mistakes, albeit of the same genus.
“I’m not a traditionalist, I can tell you that right away,” declared architect Stefan Behnisch at the presentation, though his sketches speak for themselves. The relatively featureless glass and steel polygons certainly were not hideous—but they were not Harvard either. Rather than being different for difference’s sake, as are the Holyoke and Science Centers, it appears the new Allston will be new for new’s sake—modern and nondescript, saying “suburban industrial park” moreso than “the Harvard of the future.”
Harvard is trying to weave a narrative for its shining new campus: it wants to tell the world that the inegalitarian and stuffy old New England college of the past is being overtaken by the open and cosmopolitan university of the future. It wants to show the world that Harvard isn’t all pedigree, but promise and progress as well. Yet it cannot successfully burst into the 21st century by denying its heritage and aesthetic. An intrinsic part of Harvard’s allure is its unique character, its singularly American mix of neo-Georgian, neo-Classical, and colonial architecture, its brick and ivy. The airy glass structures of Behnisch are beautiful to be sure, but they do not highlight Harvard’s heritage or evoke its glory. Instead they evoke the new science complexes of Anycollege, U.S.A., something which Harvard is not.
No one would reasonably suggest that the Allston campus be all Smith Halls and Old Quincy—that wouldn’t make much of a statement either. But it should put a fresh spin on Harvard’s old charm, make a bold new statement while affirming Harvard’s identity. This is no impossible task: while recent history is literally littered with anathema (Pound Hall, and the new building at 90 Mt. Auburn St.), the University has managed to evoke rather than revoke with boldly modern Maxwell Dworkin and Hauser Hall, among others. With a bevy of talented architects, it should have no trouble outdoing those designs that speak to the future without nodding to the past.
If the University is truly serious about shifting Harvard’s center toward Allston and making it the flagship campus of the institution—and perhaps, of the nation—it cannot afford to make it anonymously contemporary. Allston must be imaginative and dramatic, iconic of a new era for America’s oldest university. It needs landmarks, an instantly recognizable style: a Memorial Hall or a Widener Library for a new age. In searching for this new signature, the University ought not look at MIT or Stanford or at the latest design that—like the Science Center style of the 70s—will be dated before the paint is dry. It should look into itself to build the Harvard of tomorrow.