New CGIS Building Houses the Good, Bad, and Ugly

Forget the T rides to Copley Square, where, once out, you are confronted by the mirror-like walls of the John Hancock Tower. Harvard students won’t need to schlep into Boston anymore (not that we ever do) in order to see the work of architect Henry N. Cobb ’47, who in 1955 co-founded a now-famous firm with I.M. Pei. An award-winning former chairman of the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cobb has finally built something in his own backyard—literally.

Taking up the grassy space behind and next to the GSD, the University’s new Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) sits on both sides of Cambridge Street as if quietly defying (or perhaps anxiously awaiting) his alma mater’s judgment. And quiet is precisely what is heard from most members of the GSD faculty, who will not comment.

But while design experts stood by quietly, local residents protested the construåction of CGIS, and the City of Cambridge blocked Harvard’s initial plan to construct a tunnel connecting the two buildings.

Covered with rectangular terracotta panels, the building’s exterior responds to the traditional brick buildings and sidewalks that characterize Cambridge and Harvard. But, although the terracotta acknowledges the center’s Cantabrigian context, it nevertheless remains true to Cobb’s minimalist, highly geometric style. And such a conscious borrowing from Cambridge’s architecture might be for the best, considering the University’s conflictive past with locals over the campus’s construction of contemporary buildings (and this one in particular).

In an interview on site, GSD Associate Professor of Architecture Laura J. Miller, said that the building’s skin is a “valorous attempt to make this project respond to the overly prescriptive review process that such projects undergo.” Pointing to the terracotta cladding’s color she said, “This is especially geared towards the lay person. It’s an amelioration of the desire to have everything in brick.” She, added, though, that “unfortunately, it could be mistaken for vinyl siding.”

But, aesthetically pleasing or not, the expensive and fragile terracotta material is already breaking all over the place. Maintenance costs will likely inflate what is already an exorbitant price tag: although a decade ago the cost of the center was projected to be $30 million, the final bill is approximately $100 million.

If the terracotta is an effort to make CGIS blend into Cambridge, it is, however, offset by the designer’s ultimate decision to divide the center into two identical, disconnected buildings, each facing the other from opposite sides of the street. The exact duplication of the buildings and their direct alignment gives the impression that this center is forming its own little, self-involved bubble. The segment of the street is appropriated by the imposing presence of the twinned structures that stand like sentinels guarding Harvard turf. This impression is only magnified by the center’s position on the fringes of the campus. So much for fitting in.

When asked, in a phone interview, about this pseudo-privatization of public space, Cobb said “Everything in life is a choice. There are trade offs. Preserving the garden was absolutely crucial.” And in order to preserve the community’s historic garden behind the GSD and CGIS, the center had to be split into two buildings.

“The garden is one of the most successful examples of shared space between the institution and the community,” said Cobb. “The neighborhood wanted the space saved and I really agreed with them… I felt that [dividing the buildings in two] was the only way to save the garden,” said Cobb.

The interior of each building echoes the rational, grid-like lines of the exterior’s windows, thus sending out the clear message that CGIS is the home of well-established academic disciplines. Yet the interior is not devoid of human warmth. Like little oases in a desert of offices, intimate spaces with comfortable furniture are strategically scattered across each floor, encouraging discussions perhaps sometimes lacking in Gov sections.

The two pairs of brightly colored staircases, for instance, are indicative of Cobb’s intention to create a vibrant place. The walls of each staircase are painted in energetic hues—red, yellow, and green—that then taint the incoming sunlight before it bounces off the colored surface onto the (no longer) white walls nearby.

This elaboration of decorative details is, however, not present in all aspects of the interior’s design. “There are highly worked details,” said Miller. But she said that, overall, the inside of the center “is kind of generic. This interior could be found in any speculative office park.”

And, although the interior is far from being the bleak setting of “Office Space,” the brushed metal, opaque glass, and pale wood used throughout CGIS often recall the materials found in any Ikea catalog.

The same problem reappears in the actual structure of the interior corridors and rooms. Inside and outside, the same shapes repeat themselves ad nauseam. “Between the [building’s] diagram and the details there is little evolution. It’s simple, in both elegant and rather clumsy ways,” said Miller.

The advantage of this minimal differentiation is that not much of a structural hierarchy can be identified. Luckily, the CGIS is not a pyramid, even though the Center for American Political Studies gets a fourth floor perch, while—for example—the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies sits just one story above street level.

Out in the garden, stout little glass pyramid nudges its way between two wooden houses. A rather awkward allusion to I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, this skylight is only further ridiculed by the nearby presence of another much more elegant asymmetrical glass pyramid also designed by Cobb. But this is precisely what Cobb’s entire paradoxical building is like: graceful one second, yet maladroit the next.

—Staff writer Michaela N. de Lacaze can be reached at