Situations in Space

A golden mean seems both essential and elusive as Harvard sets out to build

Like a troop ship launching into the night, the University last Thursday convened a scouting party to the future almost totally unnoticed by students. President Faust’s announcement of an advisory committee to propose changes to the campus’s physical infrastructure didn’t attract the sort of attention that’s accompanied the initiatives to tinker with the Administrative Board or reconsider the Undergraduate Council. But in the long run, poured concrete has a much longer lifespan than disciplinary styles—today, Eliot dining hall remains more intact than President Eliot’s curriculum. Rather than leaving this discussion in the hands of experts and commissioners, we ought to keep physical space at the center of a broad discussion about how we live our everyday lives as Harvard students.

At the heart of President Faust’s imperative for the committee is “the need for additional spaces for cultural, recreational, and social activities for the Harvard community.” Anyone who’s held an event, eaten a meal, or even just observed Harvard’s idiosyncratic campus knows just how maddening the layout of our school can be. Some of that’s not our fault: a large fraction of the campus was built long before modern conveniences like laptop computers or flush toilets, and provisions for these have been added haphazardly.

Since the situation is so mixed-up as it is, there are plenty of uncontroversial tweaks that can yield significant impact. The conversion of a periodicals room to a café in Lamont Library has probably done more to change the day-to-day structure of student life than all of the policy changes in the last five years combined. Simple, obvious improvements in commonly used spaces can have a broad effect on the many everyday activities whose patterns depend on these spaces.

Still, reconfiguring campus space can’t consist entirely of bandaging up old buildings. It has to address spatial scales far larger and far smaller. On the large scale, the shuttle system distorts the way we imagine distance across campus. On the small scale, suite doors, many of which slam shut and lock by default, pull us towards an in-suite, invite-only pattern of socializing. Patterns like these, long taken for granted, coax us into habitual behaviors that, even when comfortable, could stand reexamination. To excavate the manifold ways in which space has guided us into routine, the members of the committee will need to flex their visual imaginations.

Perhaps most significantly, the way we imagine space in the 21st century looks increasingly divorced from traditional assumptions of space. The next few years will introduce students to Harvard who have never known a time without the Internet—students for whom virtual space is as important as, if not more important than, real space.

Consequently, it’s important to keep in mind how much the virtual life has deeply remodeled our ways of conceptualizing space in a way that older generations can’t understand. We have entered an age in which not only particular tastes about spaces, but the basic assumptions about what space is are being revolutionized.

If traditionalism isn’t the answer, though, we’ve got to be careful of too-hopeful radicalism as well. Down the road at MIT, Simmons Hall, an award-winning building which opened in 2002, was designed with deliberately contorted spaces to force students to interact. Architects and critics love the design for its innovative and playful use of space.

But students, apparently, do not. Joseph Pollack reported students’ tepid responses in ArchitectureWeek: “I know I’m not an architecture student,” said one, “but it seems like [Simmons] is really bare and feels like a hotel, not a home.” In this case, even when they may know better, the experts must let the laypeople win. At Harvard, the College did an outstanding job at renovating Hilles Library into a student center that’s a model of beautiful design. But they misjudged the puerility of students who won’t walk ten minutes out of their way to come visit it. One can accuse these students of an unfair laziness. But in the end, the success of space is ultimately decided by a democracy of its users.

The infrastructure committee, then, has a lot to think about as it takes up the task of retooling Harvard’s campus. It hasn’t got much to rely on. It shouldn’t be either broad or minute, but both at once; it can’t be traditional or radical, but some hybrid of the two; and it can’t even assume that space means the same things to new students and old designers. But the stakes are high, and the decisions it makes are ones in which we should invest our most intimate concern.

Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies in Cabot House. His column runs on alternate Fridays.