The newly renamed Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center has the potential to be an exciting part of campus life when the renovated building opens in 2018. For now, it remains a cement monstrosity—an uninviting, poorly designed, and aging reminder of the 1970s. The Harvard and Cambridge communities might be better served if the renovations began with a wrecking ball and whole-scale demolition, but we accept that most of the building will remain intact as a sad reminder of the architectural sins of our past. Even so, there is a lot that can be done to make this space better serve the Harvard community.
The renovated campus center should strive to be a flexible, inviting space. It should be a spot that students naturally gravitate toward. That will depend on the availability of good food options, comfortable seating, and the feeling that the architects create. We hope that there will be ample event space as well as rooms that student groups can book.
The University should be applauded for including student input in the design process. Over the next several weeks, the planners will hold a number of focus groups with people across the Harvard community. The success of the building will hinge on how responsive the designs are to student suggestions. This new space simply will not work if it feels sterile or separated from the rest of Harvard. If it feels like the SOCH, it will be a failure.
Since the announcement, some students have argued that the space will not actually achieve its goal of fostering a united university. The naysayers are skeptical that the campus center will ever become a common space. Distance makes it unlikely that the campus center will be a hotspot for Medical School or even Law School students, but the Common Spaces initiative should not be underestimated. Just a few years ago, there were no chairs in Harvard Yard. Now it is hard to imagine the Yard without them. Only last year, the Science Center Plaza was a construction zone. Now it is a vibrant platform for food trucks and events. If past projects are any indication, the Smith Campus Center will be a success.
The bad news is that few current students will be at Harvard long enough to benefit from the renovated Smith Center. Current students will hear about the great things to come but leave before they have the chance to experience them. For students who will be gone by 2018, they will only ever know the Smith Center as the concrete shame that it is.
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