Civil society (the local Cambridge version) puts a damper on architectural visions, while on the other side of town MIT manages to soar with the eagles.
In the Harvard Magazine, Joan Wickersham writes (mostly) about the buildings that Harvard hasn't been able to build due to neighborhood opposition in Cambridge (Bricks & Politics, What gets built at Harvard, what doesn't, and why). It's noteworthy that the university has been thwarted repeatedly by the residents of Cambridge, not only when it wants to expand it buildings into adjacent neighborhoods, but even on Mount Auburn Street between Harvard Yard and the river houses. It would appear that civil society is more fun to theorize about than to deal with in real life.
But I wonder whether these lost battles might be less than they appear on first blush:
- Harvard was unable to build a museum designed by Renzo Piano, but the compromise was a zoning change that allowed three- to six-story housing units to be built instead,
- Instead of an avant-garde design on Mount Auburn Street designed by Hans Hollein, which was rejected in a 0-7 vote by the Cambridge Historical Commission, Harvard built a version of the modern glass box in the Harvard Square area where the community preference was for red brick.
The sidebar story about the success of architectural adventures at MIT is the centerpiece for me. I sense the envy at Harvard about buildings like Frank Gehry's Stata Center (large picture) and Steven Holl's Simmons Hall. So it is worth noting the comments of O. Robert Simha, who was director of planning at MIT from 1960 to 2000. His take on why Harvard has it so tough:
- MIT is adjacent to an industrial part of Cambridge, so there are fewer residents to complain
- MIT encouraged its administrators and planners to become personally involved in Cambridge city affairs, so they have a personal connection with the decision-makers
- Not Harvard's size, but rather its decentralization could be its undoing, encouraging leaks and rumors that contribute to distrust by the local community
Harvard's chance for some eye-catching architecture without pesky and meddlesome neighbors may be coming in the new Allston campus, across the Charles, where the university will no longer have to deal with Cambridge (it's actually part of Boston). There Harvard owns a huge tract that's almost a blank slate.