Back to the Drawing Board

Big building projects head back to the drawing board

Two major Harvard construction projects have gone back to the drawing board as a result of civic objections to the architects’ designs. In Cambridge, where the ap-proval process for a planned center for government and international studies seemed stalled, architect Henry Cobb appeared before the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District Commission (MCNCDC) on May 30 with a greatly revised scheme (see “Two Buildings, Many Obstacles,” May-June, page 66).

Quoting one of the commissioners, who had called the previous design “gutless” at a prior meeting, Cobb explained his new approach: the redesigned buildings, which make extensive use of glass, are not as tall, yet are much more distinctive in appearance. Both are rounded at the back, presenting soft shoulders to the adjacent residential neighborhood. Cobb told the commission that the gross floor area of the buildings had been reduced, but that the net usable space remained the same due to increased efficiency in the design. He also reported that Harvard itself has only provisionally approved the new scheme, since reactions from the departments affected remain to be heard.

MCNCDC chair John Moos summed up his colleagues’ reactions by telling Cobb, “You clearly have a consensus from this commission that this redesign is very much in a direction that we would like to support….We’ve got a lot of work to do, but [are] clearly energized about continuing to work” with Harvard on the project. The larger community is expected to have a chance to comment when a public hearing is scheduled to discuss the redesign. Some neighbors continue to express displeasure that an academic center with classrooms, library, and conference facilities and its attendant traffic would be located adjacent to a residential neighborhood.

Meanwhile, across the river in Allston, where the University was planning a 21-story apartment building to house graduate students, the opposition of community leaders led Mayor Thomas Menino to ask for a redesign of the complex. “It is difficult for me to make this request because of the urgent need for this project,” wrote Menino, alluding to the severe shortage of student housing in Boston. “Nevertheless…the Allston community has serious res­er­vations about the design; in particular, the height of the proposed tower…. In view of that, and because inevitably this project is an important signal of Harvard’s larger presence in Boston in the years to come, it is wise to take another course.” Harvard has therefore instructed architects Machado and Silvetti to start over; project managers hope to have a new design in hand by the end of this year.

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