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Harvard's Newest Ivory Tower

Not In My Backyard

By Zachary R. Heineman

Standing on the 15th floor of the new graduate school dormitory located across the Charles at the business school, you can see for miles. Looking back across the river draws the eye toward downtown Boston, which seems in completely the wrong place due to the river’s nearly 180 degree curve. In the other direction is the Harvard stadium, with the hills of Belmont situated behind it. The view, perhaps needless to say, is my favorite part of the building, but a number of other features of the building have proven surprisingly pleasing as well.

The building, Harvard’s latest attempt at housing a greater number of graduate students on campus, is extremely complicated while simultaneously extremely simple. It is simple in that it consists of three main geometric elements: an L-shaped “low-rise” (meant to evoke the river houses), a “mid-rise” (Harvard’s preferred name for the tower), and a massive “bridge” (really an elevated building) between the two. It is complicated in that the surfaces of these elements are treated in all sorts of crazy styles and textures. There is brick in many shades, laid in a variety of corduroy patterns; there is engineered stone (cast concrete), both rough and smooth; there are windows, both protruding and flush. The surface of the “bridge” is striated with a pattern of engineered stone; while subtle and somewhat creative, this hodgepodge of surfaces ultimately makes the building look like it’s peeling from a bad sunburn.

Strangely, the best part of the building is the underside of the bridge. It is rare that a building has an underside, and, when it does, it seems strange that the underside should be its best side. Standing directly underneath the bridge provides an impressive experience; its height creates the sensation of being within an enormous outdoor room. The underside of the bridge has by far the best surface treatment: a system of cast concrete panels forming a landscape of architecturally random pyramids. These panels are intriguing and beautiful, and one can imagine people bumping into each other as they look up and stare at the pattern above them rather than pay attention to where they’re going. From the river, the outline of the bridge and low-rise dramatically frames a trapezoidal-shaped piece of the sky.

By raising part of the building’s mass with the bridge element, the architects created a notable amount of unimpeded open space (1.5 acres on a 2 acre site). This space will be an enjoyable asset for graduate students with leisure time on their hands; hopefully noise-limiting measures will keep down the roar of Soldier’s Field Road—which unfortunately sits adjacent to the site. The building was designed by the firm of Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, chosen from an initial pool of 40 firms worldwide. Machado and Silvetti are both tenured faculty at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), continuing a Harvard tradition of building buildings designed by faculty. Josep Lluis Sert, dean of the GSD from 1953-69, was responsible for the Holyoke Center, the Science Center, and Peabody Terrace.

The interior of the building is terrific, with lots of thoughtful details. To prevent the hallway in the bridge section from seeming too long, the architects staggered the wall panels and put windows at the far points—like lights at the end of the tunnel. The interiors of the apartments are bright as well. The kitchen cabinets are light-colored wood laminate, an elegant alternative to Formica or some other cheap material. The floors are cork, a natural material matched by cork trees that will be integrated in the landscaping below. My only complaint would be that in the mid-rise, there are no corner windows, which would have taken better advantage of the view. This is understandable, however, since corner windows would have required cantilevering the floors in the corners, which is structurally more complicated and expensive.

Harvard should be commended for the way it has responded to the Allston community on this project. The height of the low-rise continues the roofline of an adjacent garage—a decision thought to be compatible with the relevant residential structures. The community asked that Harvard not turn its back on them, and the University responded in two ways. Symbolically, the address of the building is One Western Ave.—the street slated to be Allston’s Mass. Ave. in Harvard’s long-term development plans. Physically, the building opens out onto Western Avenue as well, although currently this entrance doesn’t make much sense. It likely will in the future.

Part of the goal of the design for One Western Ave. was to mark this important corner of the Harvard campus. The building succeeds as a marker, although not necessarily a good one, considering the comments I’ve heard in the Leverett House dining hall. “Not another ugly tower,” more than one person has said. The tower is not ugly by any stretch, but it reads as a rather non-descript flat-walled box.

Still, Harvard has made a strong effort with this building, and even if you hate it, at its worst, it will be a fine place for a few hundred graduate students to live. I certainly wouldn’t mind.

Zachary R. Heineman ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. This is his final column.

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