For Design Purists, Renovation Sparks Ire

Some faculty are worried changes will ruin original architect’s “total design”

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Harvard college Library

A librarian works at her desk in the Woodberry Poetry Room in May, right before it was closed. The room is currently undergoing renovations.

Though the Woodberry Poetry Room is usually one of the quieter places in Lamont, the fifth-floor room has become a subject of controversy since renovations to the room set off a letter-writing campaign led by Graduate School of Design (GSD) faculty concerned that the renovations will ruin famed architect Alvar Aalto’s original design for the room.

Renovations to the room, which began May 29, include converting two roundtable consoles into tables, rearranging lounge chairs, and replacing original Aalto-designed chairs with new chairs from a different manufacturer. Pieces moved out of the room will be taken in by the Busch Reisinger Museum or sold through an auction house, according to library administrators.

GSD Department of Architecture Chair Toshiko Mori learned of the renovations to the room through an anonymous letter she received on June 14.

The Woodberry Room is one of only four Aalto projects in the U.S., according to Mori. Because Aalto designed the room in its entirety, “from the point of view of design, it’s very, very important to keep everything intact,” Mori said.

Following a presentation given by the room’s current architects to interested GSD faculty, Mori wrote a letter to Larson Librarian of Harvard College Nancy M. Cline urging Cline “to reconsider [the] dismantling of [the] Woodberry Poetry Room.”

Aalto, a Finnish architect, was “one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century,” according to Emeritus Hooker Professor of Visual Art Eduard F. Sekler.

“He clearly wanted to have a concept that was appropriate for a room where poetry is enjoyed and this means everything [from] the colors and materials used [to] the arrangement of the furniture in the relation to each other and to the way the light comes to the various parts of the space,” Sekler said.

Cline and Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53—the director of the Harvard University Library—responded to Mori’s letter with a three-page letter on July 3, in which they wrote that the library was “trying to preserve and enhance the function of the room in a way that acknowledges and respects Aalto’s contribution.”

The lead architect for the renovations, David Fixler of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, is an Aalto expert, according to Beth S. Brainard, director of communications for Harvard College Library (HCL).

Einhorn Yaffee Prescott has done historic preservation work on Widener Library, the U.S. Capitol, and the Library of Congress, according to its website.

Brainard said that the GSD was not notified of the renovations to the room because “there is no mechanism within Harvard for notifying the Graduate School of Design of capital projects.”

A large part of the controversy stems from HCL’s decision to replace the current chairs, designed by Aalto, with new chairs. The new chairs were chosen for their comfort, durability, and similarity to Aalto’s original design, Cline said.

But because of the “total design” of Aalto’s work, replacing his original chairs with chairs from a different manufacturer is a change especially egregious to the individuals who have written letters to Cline.

In a July 7 letter to Cline, Mori wrote that Artek—the company that Aalto founded and that produced the original furniture used in the Woodberry Room—“is still in production and able to comply with any special needs and standards required for the Library in its current use.”

But Brainard said that the chairs that were put into the Woodberry Room by Aalto are no longer manufactured by Artek and would therefore need to be custom-made. She also said that Aalto’s original chairs did not withstand the heavy use of the poetry room.

“We don’t want to invest in something that has proven not to be durable enough,” she said.

Although the room is not scheduled to open until September 11, Brainard said the majority of the work in the room has been completed. Delivery of the new chairs—which have already been paid for—will complete the renovation and should arrive in early September.

Brainard stressed that the renovations of the room were minor. “The room will look very much the way it did before it closed,” she said.

Others disagree. “Through disputable choices like the altered general disposition and the change of the furniture, the new Woodberry Room will not have much in common with Aalto’s original creation,” four GSD professors wrote to Cline in a July 7 letter. Those professors included the directors of the GSD’s master in architecture and doctoral programs.

“We’re in a difficult position. We are a library, not a museum,” Brainard said. “This room needs to be designed so students have a comfortable study space and access to the poetry and to the resources in the room,” she said.

—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at bmoraski@fas.harvard.edu.