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The Next Carpenter Center?

Not in My Backyard

By Zachary R. Heineman

To be honest, I could not care less that the Pro is shutting its doors. If I want overpriced alcohol, Redline and others are still close by. The real tragedy will be the loss of Skewers, which for four years has kept me out of the dining hall on a consistent basis, with its offering of grape leaves and lamb shwarma. Since I’m making everyone hungry, I will move on to a discussion of what is really important: Harvard’s attempt to generate a piece of significant architecture on the site, one of its first in many years (the new Naito and Bauer laboratory building has been a success, albeit on a far less prominent site). Harvard needs another Carpenter Center, a building that will get people to think and talk about the meaning of architecture, whether they like the design of the building or not. For local residents, the design of the building is less important than public use of the ground floor though retail space, and Harvard would be wrong to ignore them.

Harvard already tried once to achieve architectural significance at 90 Mt. Auburn St., hiring Austrian Hans Hollein (winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor) to create a unique building for the site. His design called for a bifurcated, undulating wire mesh screen set in front of a glass facade. Since the building will house library administrators, many thought the design was reminiscent of an open book. While I wouldn’t accuse Hollein of being that cutesy, I would say that his design had an element of gimmickry. Any time an architect departs from the rectilinear grid—the most natural form of architecture—it should be for a reason other than the purely aesthetic. With the facade facing north, there was no real necessity for a brise soleil, as the wire mesh would ostensibly have been. Local residents did not like a foreigner telling them what was contextual and appropriate for the Square, leading the Cambridge Historical Commission to shoot down Hollein’s design.

After suffering this defeat, Harvard regrouped and rehired, but maintained its commitment to build a modern building on the site. The new design—by the Boston firm of Leers Weinzapfel Associates—has a great deal of integrity. It is the non-concrete modernist building that the Square never had, with glass, aluminum, and terra-cotta combining to create a clean exterior that is elegant in its simplicity.

According to principal Andrea Leers, the intent of the design is to create an open and accessible facade, “delicate” in its detailing. The building understands its context, standing at a height that does not overpower its historic neighbors, the Fox and the D.U. clubhouses. This height has been minimized through the employment of a state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling system, obviating the need to have mechanical systems on the roof. This has an added benefit of allowing extensive skylights that will provide important natural light for the top-floor rare book restoration division. The building has also been sited in such a way that a pathway will be created from Mt. Auburn St. through to Pinocchio’s Pizza, adding character to the cityscape and making the Square a bit more pedestrian friendly.

The last notable modern building to be erected in the Square was the Design Research (now Crate and Barrel) building on Brattle Street, which succeeds because it creates a light space from heavy materials (the new building at 90 Mt. Auburn St. creates light space from light material). Because of full-height clear glass walls, the cantilevered concrete floor slabs of the Design Research building appear to float, almost hanging in mid air. Designed by Benjamin Thompson (known for pioneering the concept of adaptive reuse with such projects as Fanueil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York), the building will be awarded the 25-year award from the American Institute of Architects this year. It demonstrates that Harvard Square is not a monolithic place, and that modern architecture can interact with more traditional brick buildings.

The Cambridge regulatory boards will likely find the design of the new building to be appropriate for the site; the biggest question at the moment is what will happen on the first floor. Local residents like G. Pebble Gifford, former president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, would like to see retail space remain there. Harvard would like to use the entire first floor for its employees, since the building is not very large to begin with (four small stories above grade, one below). Harvard’s current plan to placate dissenters is a gallery (possibly containing rare books from the library collection) that would take up 16 percent of the usable ground floor area. I honestly cannot think of anything more banal.

An art gallery sounds like a good idea in principle, but in actuality it would be an awkward space and likely an underutilized one. I could not agree more that the first floor at the street front should be commercial. However, local residents need to accept the fact that by asking for a building with less bulk, they are making it hard for Harvard to have much flexibility in the first floor program. My suggestion would be a “false front” solution. Instead of a retail store like the Pro, which requires a lot of floor space, the building should incorporate a take-out restaurant, like the Wrap (which, by the way, will be forced out of its current space in October). If supplies were stored in the basement, a restaurant like the Wrap could be accommodated in an extremely narrow space. The area currently allotted for the gallery could be converted into a small seating area. Commercial space in the square equals public space; Harvard should not privatize this stretch of Mt. Auburn St.

Zachary R. Heineman ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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