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A Room With a View

By Nicholas Lemann

Although Soldiers Field Park, Harvard's new $22.5 million apartment complex, is meant to be a restrained place, these days it's bustling with a subtle sort of activity. Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on two of the complex's four buildings, so that they will be ready for occupancy in time for the summer and fall rush. Earnest young couples wander into the complex's model apartments to talk to George Chase of the Harvard Real Estate Office and see if it's the life for them. Planting is continuing on Soldier Field Park's 1500 shrubs and 200 trees. The day-care center is just getting started.

When it's all said and done, Soldiers Field Park will have 480 apartments, a parking garage, a small grocery store, study areas, plazas and playgrounds, all for the exclusive use of what the Real Estate Office calls Harvard Affiliates. It's the University's most ambitious building project in some time--by contrast, Pusey Library cost $8 million--and it's supposed to fill the housing needs of faculty, staff and graduate students.

Whether it will is another question. For one thing, Soldiers Field Park is anything but cheap. Although the Real Estate Office says its rents are comparable to most others in Boston and Cambridge, the complex is higher priced than at least most Harvard rental property. A one-bedroom apartment at Soldiers Field Park is listed at $260 to $325 a month; the same thing costs $185 to $250 in Peabody Terrace (although that will go up soon) and $154 in Holden Green. One reason for the higher prices is the cost of the building, but another is that it's considerably fancier than its Cambridge counterparts. It would be hard to imagine faculty members living in the slightly seedy Holden Green, after all.

Make no mistake: whether or not it's affordable, Soldiers Field Park is not seedy. Its apartments are sparkling white, with wall-to-wall carpeting and, in most cases, small porches. They're cleanly and efficiently designed--plenty of closet space, low ceilings, Diz-Poz-Alls and refrigerators. There are two model apartments in the complex, and the one furnished by Design Research looks exactly right. The other, filled with antiques and books, is wildly incongruous. Soldiers Field Park is the kind of place where you can live an orderly, uncluttered, crime-free life. Leave the work at the office, where it belongs. Small dinner parties. Drinks on the porch, as the sun sets over the river. Colored sheets.

All of which points to the central problem with Soldiers Field Park, a problem of divergence between how things seem and how things are. In the immediate case, graduate students are by and large not looking for semi-elegant apartments with high rents and no bookshelves, and it's hard to imagine that many of them will live in Soldiers Field Park. More broadly, the whole complex is the kind of thing that in theory, when described or seen in model form, is a wonderful place to live, but in actual fact is not. It's the kind of place that is ideally suited to artists' conceptions, these drawings that show people strolling through plazas pushing baby carriages, sitting under schematic trees and living the good life.

Architect Benjamin Thompson has, to his credit, taken considerable pains to make Soldiers Field Park into the theoretically good building that it is. Here are some of the things about it that sound great: It is built of red brick, so as to blend harmoniously into the neighboring Business School. Its four buildings are of various heights, rising backward from the river to provide everyone with a view, and various shapes, so as not to seem too monotonous and regimented. There are a series of interior pedestrian plazas, studded with trees and benches, for people to walk it. There are communal facilities. The complex is only ten minutes' walk from Harvard Square. It overlooks the Charles. It's near the major traffic arteries. And so on.

In actual fact, none of these things work the way they're supposed to. The building shapes that look so pleasing in schematic drawings in real life form a confusing jumble, one in which it's hard to tell where the order is. The red brick, while offset by inset balconies and windows, is still massive and intimidating. The pedestrian areas are claustrophobic, their trees in neat rows or sunk in cement, quite unlikely to be the site of casual gatherings. The river is nearby, but so is the noisy traffic on Soldiers Field Road, Western Ave. and the Mass Pike. The complex's curious siting isolates it from most of the surrounding area, so that if you wanted to buy something not at the built-in grocery store you'd have to walk to the Square, ten minutes away. People who want to leave the world behind when they leave work, to stay inside and look out the window, may like it there.

For people who are looking for anything approaching a sense of community--streets, sidewalks, neighborhoods, shopping areas, any kind of vibrance or variety--Soldiers Field Park is not the place. It's an isolated, pretty, impersonal pile of brick, not very conducive to interaction whether internally or with the outside world. The biggest of all the planners' misconceptions is the assumption that Harvard is attractive not because of the interplay among interesting people and things, but because it's fancy and red brick and has a nice view of the river.

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