Wednesday, August 15, 2007

North Allston Neighbors Suspicious About Harvard? Sure. Just Not About Architectural Designs

New Boston Globe Metro columnist Yvonne Abraham had a piece in today's paper on how Harvard should be daring in their architectural design as they re-design and redevelop North Allston. She relies exclusively on Harvard Allston Task Force member, and president of the Allston Civic Association, Paul Berkeley to be an expert and critic on architecture.

Abraham points to MIT's campus as a model for Harvard's future buildings. I love MIT's architecture as much as the next guy -- whether his name be Frank or Renzo or Stephen or Stefan or Alvar -- and personally would be happy to see more architectural adventurousness. Point taken.

Harvard's proposed Science Complex, however, ain't visually progressive architecture. It is an awfully ugly thing: chimneys sticking up to nearly 150 feet above street level; building mechanicals forming extended roofs; parts of the outer walls canting open-and-closed; and the whole thing towering over the neighborhood like a beige Godzilla. Those ugly things, however, are key elements in Harvard's insistence that this building be a "sustainable" design. Chimneys allow passive air circulation out of the building, louvered outer walls provide variable air intake, etc. This building will be a marvel of sustainable engineering design, not of architectural whimsy. Harvard wanted a "green" building; their strict requirements resulted in this behemoth:

Abraham then bizarrely implies that the problems Harvard might be having with their neighbors in North Allston is over architectural design:
But they must contend with two things MIT doesn't appear to have encountered: conservative faculty members who prefer red-brick, Georgian reproduction to real innovation and active, suspicious neighbors.
That just isn't the case. The North Allston neighbors are suspicious of Harvard over a lot of things: withholding information; not engaging them on many elements of the process; exceeding the zoning building heights envisioned by the North Allston Strategic Framework by 50%; putting the green space in an interior courtyard poorly accessible to the community; not including sufficient parking for the complex's occupants' let alone the massive needs of future construction projects; and so on. The neighbors have made only modest progress despite their incredible efforts.

Contrary to Abraham's thesis, the North Allston neighbors have been trying to reason with Harvard over virtually everything except for architectural design! Architecture is really low on the list of suspicions.

(The exception: neighbors would like to see the mechanicals and chimneys on the top reduced in scale, but no word really on their design per se. Nobody looking at the artist's conception [above] would say that the design of the top of the building would make or break it as an architectural gem.)

I have been enjoying Abraham's columns in the last month or so, but not this one. I think she needs to venture into the neighborhood and attend a meeting (or two) to see what is really going on. We have lots and lots of meetings these days in Allston-Brighton, sometimes up to five on a given night; she can take her pick. Or read the meeting minutes, which she could do from the comfort of her office on the other side of the city. There's a lot of pages of minutes from the last two months of meetings of the Harvard Allston Task Force; architectural design takes up very few of them.

NOTE (added 8/16/07): Adam Gaffin of UniversalHub considers that Abraham's column "channels the ghost of Brian McGrory in Allston." Har! Allston blogger Harry Mattison, and Harvard Allston Task Force member, wonders "when did we start trying to stifle innovation?" I think this column has got a lot of people twisted around like a Moebius strip.

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