Students Plan House Renewals in GSD Studio Course

If the College’s $1 billion House renovation project were left to a group of students at the Graduate School of Design, an upperclass House in 2020 would sit on stilts above a marshland adjacent to the Charles River.

Move-in day would take on an entirely new meaning. Parents would not only carry UPS boxes but would also help students lug around their dorm rooms, which would be large glass boxes themselves.

These are only some of the ultramodern ideas to emerge out of Professor Jonathan Levi’s studio class at the GSD, a core course in the school’s architectural design program. The semester-long project challenged 66 students to address the University’s impending extension into Allston. Specifically, the students grappled with one proposed plan for the expansion that entails building four Houses across the River to replace the three now in the Quad.

“This year we thought that we could combine the idea of housing with the issues of learning and knowledge, because the University is in the process of redefining the Harvard housing of the future,” Levi said.

Now, midway through the GSD project, the students are beginning to realize the difficulty of meeting the many disparate voices invested in the architectural future of Harvard.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF NEGOTIATION

“The premise of this studio is politics,” said Edward T. Huyck, a teaching assistant for the course. “It means negotiating with communities, negotiating with the student population, negotiating with the administration and their goals, [with] the board, with alumni.”

Given the many real-world challenges of the project, Allston has proved to be an excellent hypothetical testing ground for GSD students, said Huyck. The architects-in-training met with a panel of Allston developers to learn how to incorporate community’s needs into their plans.

The students also spoke with several undergraduates about House life in the context of a residential system with a distinct philosophy that dates back to President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877.

According to Levi, Lowell conceived of the current housing system in response to the economic stratification in College housing in the early 20th century.

Lowell’s vision challenged “the Gold Coast clubs that were the providence of the very wealthy at Harvard,” Levi said. “The attempt was to democratize the benefits of living on campus.”

A VISION REVISITED

But according to some, Lowell’s vision for Harvard housing is tainted by another legacy: discrimination toward gay, Jewish, and other minority students.

The current Lowell House Master Diana L. Eck acknowledged that “in Lowell’s time there were certain kinds of exclusions that were part of the zeitgeist of the era.”

As GSD students including Matt Storus approach the project, they say they worry that the current Houses are emblematic of this prejudiced period.

“Harvard is facing in this move to Allston a branding crisis,” Storus said. “It has to decide whether it wants to be a school known for innovation, for leadership, or does it want to rely on its past image? Does it want to be known as the old boys’ club?”

Today, both Eck and Storus say they see a Harvard that is more diverse than ever. Storus said he seeks to represent the increasingly heterogeneous student population with an architecture that brings this openness to a figurative level.

Storus’ design features futuristic glass-pane windows that open onto large, spacious courtyards where students, professors, and community members would come together.

“The old Houses represent a totally different political relationship between the student and the professors or student to student, wherein you’re kind of subsumed into a larger image,” he said. “I think what we’re proposing is a little more of a fluid relationship.”

A WEB OF NEW RELATIONSHIPS

Since Lowell implemented the Housing system in the 1920s, changes in technology have revolutionized student life, but the Houses have remained relatively static.

Storus said that simply placing an Eliot House look-a-like across the River would be “intellectually dishonest.”

“Would Ford produce a car that looked like the Model T now?” Storus jokingly questioned.

“These buildings look the way they do because they have embedded in them a political structure, a social structure, and also a technological structure,” he said.

Storus said that he and his partners on the project did not feel bound by the current Houses’ neo-Georgian architectural constraints. In their models, they make use of the most cutting-edge materials and designs.

The students’ also toyed with the impact that digital social networking may have on the physical space of the dorm room. Many sought to incorporate into their designs the greater social openness nurtured by networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

“We really live both virtually and physically in the world,” Levi said. “What would a Harvard House look like if we took that into consideration?”

—Staff writer Charles J. Wells can be reached at wells2@fas.harvard.edu.