Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Reconfiguring Radcliffe

January-February 2003

The institutional transformation of Radcliffe into an center for advanced study will be followed by physical changes, as the institute reclaims long-leased buildings for its own use during the next few years. A planning study undertaken by architects Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) calls for the reclamation and renovation of the major buildings that define the historic Radcliffe Yard in order to bring the fellows—who come from all academic fields and the creative arts—physically into the Radcliffe fold.

The institute is "a fellowship program at its core," says Dean Drew Gilpin Faust. "That is why it is so important to have everybody together." Some fellowship programs simply send checks to individuals so they can work where they are. "But the essence of an institute for advanced study," says Faust, "is that fellows don't come only to work on their own projects—they come to interact with one another. The planned and serendipitous encounters among them provide the logic for having a residential fellowship program." The fellows' living and working spaces are currently divided between a Radcliffe property on Concord Avenue, northwest of Radcliffe Yard, and the Cronkhite graduate dormitory to the west, while most administrative offices and the Schlesinger Library are in the Yard.

The buildings of Radcliffe Yard—a jewel of the Cambridge campus—await renovations.

Administrators originally hoped to find a way to bring the fellows together in the Yard right away. But the VSBA study showed there was no good way to achieve that in any of the three iconic buildings that stand there: Agassiz House, the library, and the former Radcliffe gym.

"The patent need was to move the fellows into the Yard," says architect Denise Scott Brown. "But the nature of those buildings and the capacities that they have didn't lend themselves well to that. We had this disconnect," she says, "between what they wanted to do and what they had. We suggested that the institute 'give up the idea of moving quickly in order to do the right move.'" After meeting with the fellows, it became clear to all that Byerly Hall, in the eastern half of the Yard (home for years to the undergraduate and graduate school admissions and financial-aid offices), would be best for fellows' offices if Radcliffe could wait until Harvard's lease ends in 2006. Meanwhile, the more public needs of the institute could better be accommodated in the three older buildings.

Radcliffe is working with the Office for the Arts to figure out how to continue to allow undergraduate use of the theater space in Agassiz House in the future. And even though plans to reclaim Radcliffe's buildings were first articulated in the October 1999 merger agreement, a new home for the undergraduate admissions office has not been selected; undergraduate dancers, faced with the loss of a dual-use practice and performance space in Rieman Gym in 2005, are also looking for new quarters. To that end, "We have given them a long lead time," says Radcliffe executive dean Louise Richardson, "so they can find alternate space before the lease expires."

Rieman will become "our central meeting space," continues Richardson, "a place for lectures, performances, and colloquia." Fellows currently meet in the Cronkhite graduate dormitory living room and in a room at 34 Concord Avenue. The Lyman Common Room in Agassiz House, now divided into offices, will be restored and become a dining room (lunch will be brought in) where the fellows will eat together four times a week. "We believe in the potential for transformation of intellectual work," says Richardson, "when it is exposed to the different perspectives of people working in disparate fields."

One of the interesting conclusions of the campus study was that Radcliffe has adequate space—but not all of it is contiguous, nor useful, for its new mission. "We are one of the few schools," says Richardson, "for whom the concept of moving to Allston has not been an issue." Radcliffe does face constraints, however. Though it has no students, the institute must continue to run the Cronkhite graduate dormitory—which houses students from the Kennedy School, the School of Education, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—because of a Corporation stipulation that no student housing can be converted to other uses.

"Since we don't have the option of using it for anything other than housing," says Dean Faust, "we need to ask ourselves whether it makes sense for us to run a graduate-housing operation." Radcliffe is mulling the transfer of Cronkhite to a school that needs it.

Also in question is what to do with the Concord Avenue property. Strictly speaking, it won't be needed once the fellows move to Radcliffe Yard in 2008, but the nascent institute may one day need that space, and so may lease it and use the income to help fund the renovations, rather than sell the property.

The renovations will be financed through a combination of revenue from other buildings, endowment income, fundraising, and borrowing. The architects' estimate of the cost is $30 million, but that is "conservative," says Richardson, and not a precise figure for a long-term project that will proceed building by building as leases expire, rather than take place all at once.

Radcliffe Yard—with its modest monumentality—is still a "very quiet, gentle space," says VSBA architect Nancy Rogo Trainer, "that will be reanimated with the introduction of the fellowship program."

"It is enchanting, a magic circle," says Denise Scott Brown. "The gardens and the curve of the lawn and the relation to the street make it feel very private." In Radcliffe's transformation from a college to an institute for advanced study, she says, "We want to make the heritage of the one become the mantle of the other" by restoring iconic spaces. "What excites me about it—I'm a historian—is that these are wonderful buildings," says Faust, "and I think this is an opportunity to celebrate their historic character in ways that will be quite glorious."