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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A $10 Million Science Center Headache

By Peter Shapiro

WHEN I CAME TO Harvard two years ago, I picked up a map of the campus from the Information Office in Holyoke Center and wandered around trying to match buildings with names on the map. When I got to the area around Memorial Hall, I noticed a big ditch about the size of a baseball diamond. "Lawrence Hall," my map told me was the name of the hole.

A couple of months later I found out that Lawrence Hall had burned down during the Spring of 1970 and that the big ditch was going to become an Undergraduate Science Center. Six years ago the site was entirely different. An often-clogged intersection, where Kirkland St., Cambridge St. and Broadway converged sat just outside the back gates of the Yard. By 1967 the Cambridge St. Underpass was built, Kirkland St. was cut off at its current length and a grassy field was formed where the intersection had been.

Now the character of that grassy field has changed radically. Now the largest building that the Harvard campus has ever seen stares down on the field and surrounding area in completed form.

Something like the Science Center has been in the works since 1939 when President Conant launched a program aimed at improving instruction in the sciences for undergraduates. The program went well with Conant's earlier idea of General Education every undergraduate should be educated in the principals and methods of the sciences as part of an overall knowledge of thought and culture.

The Science Center is a direct outgrowth of Conant's ideas of the thirties. And to many members of the Harvard community these ideas, as well as the Science Center, seem outmoded and no longer valid. The controversy reached so high a pitch that in 1969. Franklin L. Ford, then dean of the Faculty, issued a public statement defending the Science Center, entitled "A Program for Science in Harvard College: Why it Must Succeed." Ford said, "The Science Center stands in the very middle of our planning, both as a badly needed physical facility and as a symbol of the educational values we are seeking to advance."

"So much is at stake," Ford continued, "not only for Harvard but for the whole conception of collegiate education in our time and of the tasks awaiting educated men and women, that not to succeed must be rejected as unthinkable."

But Ford was up against considerable resistance and lacking in the support the sciences had enjoyed a few years earlier. The Cold War, post-Sputnik boom had worn off and along with it gushing Federal funding for scientific research had dried up into a trickle. Student interest was moving steadily away from the sciences and science Ph.D.s. who only five years before had to fight off job offers, now had to fight off unemployment.

At the same time, faculty members in the sciences were raising objections to the very idea of an Undergraduate Science Center. The educational gains to be gotten--reserving an area especially adapted for undergraduates, where they would have lab space free of intervening researchers--seemed to some to be outweighed by the educational costs. If a center was given to undergraduates, there would be no learning from nearby graduate students or sharing in the process of original research. Professors would only be there on a visiting basis, going in and out for lectures and a few scattered office hours per week. "It could become an enormous Burr Lecture Hall, with no life of its own," one biology teacher acknowledged.

The greatest opposition to the Center has come from members of the Biology Department, but the reason for this opposition is on a wholly different level than the educational reasons often cited. Biology's qualms are twofold. First, the biologists don't like the Science Center because it is far away from their normal research labs. The headquarters of the Biology Department are currently located at the end of Divinity Avenue, a good quarter mile from the Science Center. Aside from exacerbating the problem of separated research and teaching facilities, the distance poses problems for the transportation of delicate cultures and other preparations that can only be produced in the advanced laboratories of the main Bio Labs building.

The biologists are also more than a little piqued because plans for another building devoted purely to Biochemistry were scrapped and the Science Center was built instead. Biology and Biochemistry are the only two fields that have enjoyed continual growth in student interest throughout the sixties. The reason behind this growth is the great increase in the number of undergraduates preparing for medical school. Currently, 40 per cent of all students in the College are fulfilling pre-med requirements and the figure is expected to rise to 50 per cent within two years.

The greatest area of need in scientific facilities thus lies in Biology and the related field of Biochemistry. The biologists know this, and are peeved that the biochemistry building planned for them had to be incorporated into the Science Center.

The reason for scrapping plans for the biochemistry building was money. The project required some $6.6 million, which just didn't appear. In fact, with the economic decline, little money at all was appearing. But at least one industry--the Polaroid Corporation--was hardly affected by the recession and its president. Edwin H. Land, still had plenty of money on hand. So much so that at Commencement in June 1968. Land gave the University an anonymous lump-sum donation of $12.6 million earmarked specifically for the construction of an Undergraduate Science Center. With the addition of the interest accruing on Land's gift plus another miscellaneous $4 million in contributions, the Science Center was ready to become a reality. In the frenzied elation of the times, the complaints of the biologists easily passed unheeded.

BUT THE BIOLOGISTS are not the only people who are less than thrilled by the Science Center. Anyone who has suffered financially from cutbacks in the Faculty's budget is likely to look upon the Science Center as a symbol and source of economic woes. For although the entire cost of building the enormous structure came solely from capital amassed from contributions outside of the Faculty budget, the yearly upkeep of the building--expected to total about $1 million--will come exclusively from the Faculty budget.

Although $1 million doesn't seem like much compared with the overall Faculty total of $100 million annually, the effect of the increase will be great. Richard G. Leahy, assistant dean of the Faculty for Resources and Planning, said that the $1 million figure represents a "very appreciable increase" and is likely to double the Faculty's deficit. And the Faculty, which--unlike the Federal government--cannot continue to run a lasting deficit, has to find a way to make up for the new debt. Leaky said that this money will be obtained through a "general trimming down" of Faculty expenditures--most likely in areas like Buildings and Grounds rather than teaching fellows' salaries. The greatest part of the cost of the upkeep of the Science Center comes from heating, exhaust and other mechanical expenditures--things which can't be cut back on if the building is to be used. The Science Center itself will thus bear little if any of the increased cost it will bring upon the Faculty.

The Science Center faces other problems and other problems and other sources of disgruntlement, one of which in the large number of students who appear displeased by the very presence of this immense newcomer to the campus. Some feel that its broad lines and vast scale clash with the more staid and soft-spoken surroundings. Others simply find it ugly, or share a common distaste for anything more modern than the simple, old brick structures of the Yard.

The Science Center is not only the largest building on the Harvard campus: it is also the largest pre-cast concrete structure ever built anywhere. Pre-cast concrete--which is formed by pouring liquid-concrete into molds to form made-to-order planks--allows for extraordinarily quick construction. Using this technique the 400-foot laboratory wing was built in seven months. The technique used in putting together the pre-cast concrete planks resembles the way a child's popsiclestick toy raft is constructed. After the girders are put in place, the thin 60-foot-long planks are laid adjacent to one another and sealed weather-tight. In some cases, the sealing has been reinforced with epoxy glue, a cement that when hardened is stronger than the concrete.

The building is composed of four basic sections. The largest section, which runs parallel to the north wall of the Yard, is the laboratory wing forming the back of the building. The lab wing contains four levels of usable lab space topped by two levels of machinery for ventilation and exhaust of chemical furnes.

Running perpendicular to the lab wing is the office wing, which looks like an immense stairway. The top step--the one where the office wing meets the lab wing--is nine stories high. The bottom step, closest to the Yard, is only two stories high.

"The idea was to make it as low as possible on the side of the older buildings, the lower buildings of the Yard," says Jose Luis Sert, the Science Center's chief architect and former dean of the Design School. "We didn't want to break the scale of the buildings in the Yard. We didn't want the Science Center to seem menacing."

The third section of the building is the library wing, a three-level structure running east from the lowest level of the office wing. The library will hold all of the books now in Lamont Library's science collection as well as other more specialized works. Attached to the library is a small administrative section running along Oxford St.

The fourth part of the building is a semi-circular lecture hall section, containing four theatres ranging in size from 150 seats to 500 seats. The lecture halls will be outfitted with expensive and elaborate audio-visual equipment. The most distinctive feature of the lecture wing is the "spider leg" supports which hold the roof aloft. The spider legs are nine bent steel trusses that emanate from the center of the semicircle. They will be left uncovered and allowed to rest until a thick cover of reddish oxides is formed.

The building has a fifth part, but this part is more an addition onto the Science Center than a part of it. It is called the Chilled Water Plant, and it serves as a giant $6.5 million air conditioning unit. The machinery for the plant fills the largest room in the Science Center--a 40-foot-deep basement chamber running along the full length of the building's Oxford St. said.

The machinery will eventually pips the water up to three roof-top cooling towers which resemble glant dixie cups. When the building opens this September, only one of the three cooling towers will be completed. This tower will provide enough cold water to air condition the Science Center the Design School's new Gund Hill headquarters, parts of Paine Hall, and other new buildings north of the Yard. The two other booting towers need additional funding before they can be completed. When, and if they are completed the assembly will provide enough chilled water to air condition nearly every building on the campus now tacking window cooling units.

OTHER PARTS of the Science Center are also suffering from insufficient funding, but none of these appears to be crucial right now. An enormous basemen which was to have been used as a lab for teaching science instruction techniques will be left empty. A small on the top floor of the office wing will be left unfinished.

In particular, many of architect Sert's aesthetic features have been scrapped due to funding cutbacks and inflation. The 420-foot arcade running east-west through the center of the building was going to be decorated with art works: The terraces of the office wing were suppose to have been adorned with plants "sort of like hanging gardens," Sert says. Sert had also hoped to have an outdoor amphitheatre on the roof of the semi-circular lecture hall section. The building's two courtyards were going to be sculpture gardens. "Unfortunately, the parts of the building that were supposed to be given to the arts were the first to be cut out," Sert noted.

Some of Sert's innovations have remained, however. One of the courtyards will hold a cafeteria, which will have outdoor tables when the weather is warm. And Sert is hoping to negotiate with the Peabody Museum for long-term loans of primitive works of art to decorate the Science Center.

Sert--a Catalans who left Spain when the Loyalists were defeated in the Spanish Civil War-is sensitive to the criticism directed at the Science Center and his two other Harvard buildings. Holyoke Center and the Peabody Terrace married student dormitories. "You can stick to the old styles or make imitation or take them, but it would be very difficult," he said. "But I can't imagine how we could build the Science Center in Georgian style."

"The University plant is constantly growing, the continued. And the Science Center will always be a building of its time just like every building is a building of its time."

Sert sees large buildings as an unavoidable consequence of Specialization and over-population. And he believes human being will become adapted to huge, intricately subdivided places of work. "Human beings are like animals," he says.

"They get accustomed to the place they have, Like cats I have a cat who likes to sleep in its own basket-if you change the basket it might possibly be unhappy. But a few days later it won't even remember the old basket."

There seems to be little choice for students and faculty at Harvard but to become adapted to the Science Center. For if the brick-and-mortar structure of Massachusetts Hall has lasted for 250 years without too much trouble, the concrete-and-epoxy Science Center can be expected to be here long after the comfortable, old buildings of the Yard have turned to dust

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