Beyond Beauty: Are the Buildings Too Big?

Besides fueling an architectural debate, the recent surge of construction on campus has raised questions about how large Harvard's buildings should be, and whether they are using up too much of the Square's open space.

In response to a community petition filed in 1988, Quincy Square's Inn at Harvard was downzoned about 40 percent to its present height of four stories, according to John Pitkin of the Central Cambridge Neighborhood Association.

Hugh Russell '64, an architect who sits on the Cambridge Planning Board, says he favored the downzoning when he was the city's assistant manager for community development.

"It was clear to me that the building was simply too big. I said that the appropriate density on the site was about that of the [Harvard] Union, and it was downzoned to about that," Russell says.

But Robert Campbell, architecture critic for The Boston Globe, feels that a substantial building is needed "to anchor that end of Harvard Square," adding that he thinks the Inn "got cut down a little too much."


"Harvard has done some monsters in the past, such as William James Hall," Campbell says. "Clearly that era is over, partly due to the influence of the neighborhood, which lobbies extremely hard now. Harvard has got to respond."

Despite the change, R. Philip Dowds of Cambridge Citizens for Liveable Neighborhoods (CCLN) accuses the Inn's architects of "using every trick in the zoning book to get every single inch of size out of it." He says the architects have used ruses such as creating a fake roof line and raising dirt around the edge of the construction site to make the building seem smaller.

Size has also been a critical issue for the DeWolfe St. project, a pair of five-story buildings facing Quincy House. The original proposal called for buildings about twice as big, more than zoning allowed, says Didier O. Thomas, Harvard's associate director of project planning.

"The biggest challenge was to make it a scale which didn't seem overwhelming," says John Clancy, the architect of the project. "I think that the scale and relationship to the street is very good."

Pitkin worries that the buildings' larger size is turning their streets into enclosed and confined spaces. In addition, he says, they complete "a kind of institutional wall, a continuous stretch of massive buildings from William James to Gund to the Fogg to the Union to DeWolfe."

Pitkin says this wall may create a "psychological barrier" between Harvard and the eastern part of Cambridge. "If the new policy continues in this way," he says, "it would really change the character of the city in a negative way."

The new buildings have also raised some questions about the dwindling amount of open space on the Harvard campus.

"[DeWolfe] seems to come right up to the street. I hope they can come up with some creative landscaping," says Thomas A. Dingman '67, associate dean of the College for housing. "It seems like a tunnel going down the street."

According to Thomas, this problem was foreseen and "one of the goals was to avoid the canyon effect on DeWolfe St."

Clancy feels that the buildings' irregular faces and bay windows, along with the planned landscaping and fencing, will create some feeling of open space between DeWolfe and Quincy.