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The City As a Sketchpad

Design School Classroom Projects Can Both Educate Students And Help Solve Urban Problems

By Julian E. Barnes

The walkway to the Science Center.

A canal in East Cambridge.

Boston's multi-million dollar central artery project.

A highway weaving through ancient Cairo.

All were creative solutions to vexing urban problems, and all were inspired by student projects at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

The projects--which range from simple sketches to complex models--were made in so-called studio classes. In studio classes, Design School students spend one semester solving a pressing city problem, and submit their work for a grade.

Those familiar with the studio program agree it provides a unique chance for aspiring architects and urban designers to face the challenges they will meet as professionals.

"It is almost like the city is a laboratory for the students," says J. Roger Boothe, a 1977 Design School graduate who is now director of urban design for Cambridge. "When you look at a studio you get a feeling for what the problems are."

It is "a medieval, old-fashioned apprentice system," says J. Antonio Gomez-Ibanez, a professor of urban planning and public policy.

Professors are quick to note that the studio program is a learning experience first, and that any real world considerations must always come second.

"There is no intention to influence public action," says Carl F. Steinitz, Wiley professor of landscape architechture.

"The intent is to inform," he says.

In fact, while project developers have been known to fund studio projects, Design School faculty bristle at the notion that their students are playing the role of paid consultants.

"It is not as though we are like the law school where students are apprenticed to the courts and doing real work," Steinitz says. "We are exposing options but not doing real work."

"It is important to present the results of a studio as the result of a pediological example," adds Francois C.D. Vigier, Norton professor of regional planning.

But the fact remains that many Design School studio projects end up as real developments, or at least end up influencing them.

"The most useful way a studio works is at that very imaginative preliminary stage," says Boothe.

"It's hard to give a specific idea x, y or z that resulted from a studio," Boothe adds. "But you look at the project you can see the same potentials."

Of course, it may be several years before a Design School studio project makes it from a display case in Gund Hall--where final project reports are shown--to an actual construction site.

As Boothe says, "Often you have a idea in a studio and a good idea takes years to germinate."

East Cambridge Project

Such was the case with an ongoing project to redevelop 60 acres in East Cambridge, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1976, Cambridge city officials wanted to erect a structure on what Boothe described as "a beleaguered area" of "parking lots and vacant buildings."

As part of the planning process, Cambridge officials examined some Design School studio projects. Using ideas from those projects, the city in 1978 produced a report on development potential for the site.

Today, that project is 90 percent complete, and has employed many Design School ideas. Developers have turned the area into a boat canal connecting to the Charles River, surrounded by high-rise condominiums and office buildings.

Over the years, Cambridge has often used Design School student projects as a resource. Design work, in fact, has been one of the few areas in which Harvard and the city--whose relationship has been characterized more by tension than cooperation--have managed to work together.

MIT's University Park Development and proposed plans for the Alewife Brook Parkway were both Design School studio projects. And the walkway connecting Harvard Yard with the Science Center was a Design School studio solution to traffic safety problems on Broadway.

Harvard Square Study

However, many residents protested both the University Park project, saying it did not provide enough affordable housing, and the Alewife project, saying that it would damage the environment.

In fact, many prefer to cite a 1984 Design School study of Harvard Square, done on the iniative of Robert H. Scott--Harvard's vice president for finance--as a better example of how Cambridge and the Design School have worked together.

That study was not actually a studio project--it was a study conducted by two professors, Vigier and Christopher Chadborne.

The report's purpose was to "promote informed discussion among all interested in the improvement of Harvard Square and the improvement of legislative controls to guide its development."

Specifically, the study was aimed at developing a "zoning overlay district"--in other words, changing the Square's zoning restrictions to "temper the professional interest of developers."

Among the report's most important features was a recommendation that the city examine development on a cumulative basis, rather that a site by site basis. The report also suggested the city divide the city into six subdistricts, each of which could have its own zoning regulations adapted to its particular nuances.

Boothe called the study "a turning point in the whole zoning issue." Vigier said many of its recommendations were adopted by the city council, and that many of its predictions have since come true.

City Relations

It has been several years since Design School has conducted a study of such magnitude for the city, and some suggest friction between Cambridge and Harvard may be hampering attempts at joint work by Design School and the city.

"It takes two to tango," says Vigier. "There is a great deal of friction and misunderstanding between the city and the university."

Yet most Harvard and Cambridge officials, like Michael Rosenberg, the city's development director, say "relations are improving over the last couple of years."

Marilyn Lyng O'Connell, Harvard community relations director, agrees that thre recent slow-down in Design School projects for the city "is not a sign of anything."

"There has not been anything on the scale of the Harvard Square Project in recent time," O'Connell says. "But the city is talking about taking a new look at the zoning ordinance and there may be a new role for the design school there."

"I think [relations] are more complicated--the city is more complicated and Harvard is more complicated--but I think they are better," says Kathy A. Spiegelman, a former city official who is now the University's director of physical planning.

Beyond Cambridge

Of course, work at the Design School has not been confined to Cambridge. Steinitz, for instance, has a cooperative agreement with the National Parks, under which he has done work on Maine's Acadia National Park, New York's Gateway National Park and California's Yosemite National Park.

Vigier, meanwhile, has conducted studio projects dealing with North Africa. One noteworthy project involved routing a highway though the historic district of Cairo, Egypt.

Original plans had called for plowing down acres of historic buildings, but Design School students found a way to minimize the razing, and still put the highway through.

In the future, Design School ideas will probably continue to find their way into the real world, if for no other reason than that the school is continuing to run programs which directly train public officials.

Many now take programs like the ones Boothe enrolled in, which grant officials scholarships to take evening classes. In addition, the school offers programs to train third world officials in management, and has a Research Unit for Housing and Urbanization which holds seminars on third world problems.

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