Allston's Concrete Future

Harvard University is involved in a sordid love affair. For hundreds of years, one obsession has remained at the beating center of the University’s soul. We have thrown money into duplicating it, waltzed with it all throughout Cambridge, and wailed endlessly when the relationship has come under fire. Luckily, it appears that Harvard is at last ready to make the final split with its old flame: red brick.

Last February, the University announced that it had taken the first step in assembling the new archipelago of buildings that will become the Allston campus, Harvard’s gateway to the 21st century. The selection of German architects Berhnisch Architekten for the design of Allston’s first biolab should be commended for recognizing that designing the future requires not only conceptual vision, but also vision on the scale of the built world. Harvard shouldn’t plan our new Allston playground as an ossified artifact of architectural regurgitation. With the innovative Behnisch architects, our new campus will be a beautiful and modern one that jumpstarts our reputation as a leading center of the architectural world.

Stefan Behnisch unveiled a draft of the first glass temple this week, and it already appears that he is making all the right choices. “I think every time has its challenges and every time has its answers,” Behnisch said. “There is a right time for brick and masonry and there is a right time for glass.”

It’s refreshing to have architecture back on the front burner at Harvard. The last building glut on campus ended in the early 70s. At that time, Cambridge was widely considered one of the most daring design centers in the U.S. Iconic buildings such as Sert’s Peabody Terrace and Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center rose up in parallel with Harvard’s postwar intellectual boom. Harvard became an architectural rebel, dipping in to new experimental styles and unfamiliar designs in their sprawl across Cambridge.

Unfortunately, Harvard wasn’t over its love affair then and it still isn’t over it now. As Ted Stahl writes sarcastically in the journal ArchitectureBoston, “You can do just about anything around here if it’s red brick.” To many, the elegant lines of the Holyoke Center or the giant concrete triangle of Gund Hall just don’t make sense within the iconography of Harvard. Every time you hear somebody complain about Mather House or snidely contrast the Science Center to Memorial Hall, you’re hearing the words of somebody who’s still getting played around by red brick.

It’s high time that we put that mentality behind us. While it makes sense to respect the tradition of Harvard’s planning and style and to draw on its icons for inspiration, a photocopy of Sever Hall in Allston would be senseless, styleless, and a poor policy for an Allston masterplan that should be committed to building an intellectual arsenal unmatched anywhere else.

Professor in Practice of Urban Design Alex Krieger points out that “it would be pretty silly to make large, state-of-the-art science buildings look like neo-Georgian houses. Being inspired by older architecture and setting is important. Attempting to reproduce an ‘old look,’ especially for quite new functions, usually produces rather banal results.”

Although Allston will undeniably remain an organ of Harvard University, it is both physically and metaphorically an enormous departure for our august institution. Rather than artificially restrain it, it makes more sense to allow the new campus to pioneer Harvard’s future direction. That process begins with architecture that challenges old ideas and, perhaps more pragmatically, cooperates with its function.

These are heady words, and they are just the sort of thing that Harvard needs in order to mold an Allston campus that is forward-looking in philosophy and framework. Even more exciting is Behnisch’s commitment to integrating sustainable building practices into the new buildings. Says Krieger, “Behnisch will add one additional dimension, which is environmental sustainability.” As the world begins to struggle with energy crises and environmental questions, it’s fitting that Harvard develop a model for thoughtful design.

The process can now go one of two ways: Either the planning committee can allow Behnisch the room to chart the future, or they can pull back in fear of disrupting the love affair. The latter option would yield only architectural boredom in Allston. It is crucial that the design process keep at the front of its mind the period when Cambridge was, in the words of ArchitectureBoston editor Elizabeth S. Padjen, “an architectural Camelot of high energy, idealism, and creativity.”

Le Corbusier once famously said of the red-brick Faculty Club, “Tear it down.” While that may be an exaggeration, the truculent Swiss architect had a point: Harvard needs to stop letting its aesthetic sense be occluded by a puerile infatuation with the motifs of the past. Krieger says that Harvard, “which prides itself on its inclusiveness in so many intellectual and social arenas should not become the opposite when it comes to the matter of the arts including architecture.” The Allston project is Harvard’s march to the future, and architecture is its landing party. Let’s not hold back.

Garrett D. Nelson ‘09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.