Gund Hall: An Evaluation


AFTER THREE YEARS of dodging dump trucks, cranes, and cement minors, after being constantly forced into Quincy Street on the way to William James or the Bio labs. Harvard students can be happy that Gund Hall is finally finished. The dedication festivities tonight provide in occasion for members of the architectural jet set, GSD faculty, and old alumni to engage in cocktail conversation about the beauties of the Building, Very late Friday night the Janitors will sweep away the last remains of the ceremonies and the GSD students can finally settle down to working in Gund Hall.

While Gund Hall rose agonizingly to the east of Mem Hall, students and visitors could gaze down on its model in the Great Space of Robinson Hall, former home of the GSD. From the model viewer's God's and the Harvard course cataloque's vantage point, one's attention was centered on the football stadium tiered studio roof--a feature than cannot be seen from any ground view. Rather, when coming out of the year and looking past Mem Hall the image is not of a football stadium but of a "medieval-modern" fortress with its fiberglass parapets, icy black reflective glass and sinister black air-conditioning machinery squatting on the roof.

It's an isolated building. No attempt was made to fit Gund Hall into its setting by relating it to nearby buildings -- and small wonder with neighbors like William James, the Busch Riesinger Museum, the Church of New Jerusalem. Memorial Hall and Burr Lecture Hall. But it at least blocks the view of William James. Also the Busch-Reisinger museum regains some of its distinctiveness by being removed from its confrontation with Harvard's precursor to the World Trade Center.

It's a building that provokes initial uneasiness. Massively heavy overhangs are supported by slender columns. An exposed glass staircase with no visible access projects out over the pedestrian's head. Alien green fiberglass covers the roof trusses. The concrete has been poured in super-human blocks twelve feet on a side. It's even impossible to view the entire building from any one points.

However, after this initial reaction of uneasiness, and perhaps repulsion, at Gund Hall's haughty self-importance and monumentality, one finds that it is possible by noticing and exploring details to warm oneself to the building. It's a fun building to snoop around in, to explore new spaces, to scramble up the staircases and to imagine oneself locked in battle with snipers on the roof of Mem Hall. The South side patios on each studio floor provide ideal places in the Spring and Fall to catch a little sun or eat lunch as the sun is intensified by the reflecting by the reflecting glass--may be even in the Winter areas to scrape snow from for impromptu snow-ball fights. The tinted glass of the windows--although at the price of perpetual twilight for the occupants of offices and seminar rooms behind them--creates small paintings out of the views of Mem Hall.


Other things just don't work. The most glaring example is the entrance corridor. Almost vacant except for a few dying trees and some sofas on either side of the information booth, one is left with the distinct feeling that the entrance space was not designed but simply left over after the auditorium, studio, and library had been designed Toshiro Katayama's hangings, although bright, have become a hackneyed attempt at enlivening a dead space where perhaps student projects would be better exhibited.

HOWEVER, IN A final consideration of the building, Gund Hall is ultimately the enormouse unified studio space. Its resemblance to a factory is unmistakable; the stepped-back levels each free from columns remind one of convenient locations for assembly lines: the complicated trussing system evokes association of supports for heavy machinery. More important, however is the experience of the space as space itself--the equivalent of a five-story, unobstructed surge from the student lounge at the bottom to the fifth floor studios on top. There is an obvious visual contact at all levels. However, the architect's vision encompassed much more. The stairways running up either side connecting the five levels were meant to facilitate social contact as well.

After Jose Luis Sert had designated one of his most brilliant student's. John Andres, to head the new Gund Hall design team, the design team decided that all the GSD's fragmented departments and their respective studio work areas should be united under one roof without division. The result of that much-debated vision of 5-tiered studio space covered by a 2001 freespanning roof.

The resultant space is unquestionably visually dramatic, with the elegant white tubular trusses drawing one's visual attention in one sweep from the first floor lounge area to the fifth floor studios. It also was expensive. Problems in fabrications of the elements of the freespanning roof helped spiral the cost of the building from an estimated $6,000.000 to close to $10,000.000. Edward R. Baldwin, a member of the design team, claims open studio space cannot be converted. If we had built columns the department would have partitions in the studio by the dedication ceremoney."

There is an excitement in being able to wander around the space, sit in at the edge of classes, explore other people's work without feeling like a spy, and just talking to other students. It is a noticeable contrast to the secretive nature of the old GSD of individual classrooms and studios filled with cubbyholes created by students for their private use, places to hide away their planning and architectural creations until the moment of the big critique. Gund Hall insists on more cooperative attitude.

WHETHER OR NOT the unified work space will function as planned can only be evaluated after the space has been in use for some time. Yet, it is a valid question to ask of the studio space whether or not it represents design coercion; the assumption that the designers knew what is best for the GSD faculty and students and would design a space making any modifications difficult. It is conceivable that the unobstructed work space will be used as a freedom to enter into a freer exchange of ideas and to shuffle around learning areas by using the expanses of unobstructed floor space. But it is just as conceivable that the old departmental hostilities might arise that the planning faculty can't stand the sight of the landscape architects, that the students are homesick for a little visual and acoustical privacy. In such a case the GSD would find itself left with a building working in opposition to the things its occupants want. And perhaps Gund Hall's fall from greatness will be its inability to accomodate its spaces to changing user needs and situations.

Nonetheless, the building presently seems to work. Once the initial uneasiness is gotten over, there isn't really much to hate about it. It is an imaginatively and efficiently designed place to do work, emphasized by its Rube Goldbergian technologically great studio space. But it isn't a place on would want to live in, to call home, to surround one's life with its vision, shapes and materials. The edges are too hard, the materials too inorganic, the shapes too alien, the spaces too large, and the vision too monumental. All things which are only criticisms if one asks that one's work spaces be also spaces.