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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Allston Advances

July-August 2004

When four faculty task forces finished their reports on Allston this May, the development scenario outlined in an October 2003 letter by President Lawrence H. Summers (see "Allston Planning: Working 'Hypotheses,'" January-February, page 52) — that Harvard will become even more of a campus with a river running through it — began to take shape and even take on a life of its own. In particular, the idea of building undergraduate Houses across the Charles proved to have broad appeal among task-force participants and was factored into much of their work, which covered four broad areas: undergraduate life, science and technology, Allston life (culture and infrastructure, including transportation), and professional schools.

The University has emphasized that not all the ideas will become reality, yet the reports are generally more comprehensive than had been anticipated. The professional schools task force, for example, explored the kinds of collaborations that the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the School of Public Health (SPH) might engage in at an Allston location. But the overall impact of an Allston move on, for example, collaborations between SPH and Harvard Medical School (HMS) was not addressed, even though many SPH faculty also have appointments at HMS — which has academic as well as financial ramifications for both schools. Such considerations did not fall within the scope of the committee's work, presumably because the groups that contemplate a move to Allston now represent a coalition of the willing who are acting in their own best interests, given the severe physical constraints of their present locations.

The reports (available on line at www.allston.harvard.edu) will be used to inform the work of the planning and design firm Cooper, Robertson and Partners, which in the coming academic year will help the University create a preliminary planning framework for its future development in Allston. The New York City firm, chosen from a pool of 30 candidates, has designed the Boston Seaport for the city of Boston, laid out such public spaces as the Battery Park City esplanade and the Henry Moore Garden, and created campus plans for Johns Hopkins, Trinity College, the University of North Carolina, and Yale. Landscape architect Laurie Olin, who has done the designs for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences's Center for Government and International Studies, is part of the Cooper team, as is Frank Gehry, the architect who became a household name with his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and whose Stata Center was recently completed at MIT.

The group will not design specific buildings, however, but instead will generate a master plan identifying where the key elements of a new campus and its urban surroundings might lie. The process will integrate academic, physical, and financial planning. In several places, for example, the faculty task-force reports include a variety of scenarios for growth in Allston, each progressively more expensive (all cost estimates were removed before the reports were made public, however), of which only one will be chosen.

Thus the task force on professional schools offers three potential models for collaboration, all centered on the concept of leadership. The first envisions expanded executive-education programs; the second, a program focused on the principles and practice of leadership; and the third uses issues that leaders face in society as an organizing framework. There are also three scenarios for a shared facility, ranging from classroom space and a 250-seat auditorium to a center with far larger classrooms, a 1,000-seat auditorium, discussion rooms for 500, staff offices and work space, a 500-seat dining room, and a kitchen.

One of the most interesting reports, from the standpoint of new intellectual endeavors, was that focused on science and technology. It lists promising areas of inquiry that might be undertaken in Allston, including research on stem cells, quantum technologies, innovative computing, global health, and microbial biology — a glimpse at the work of the next generation. Because science grows rapidly and changes frequently, the report acknowledges that the principle of flexibility must guide the design of any new facilities.

The science and technology report also presents a reasonable explanation of how the teaching of undergraduates will proceed, suggesting that lectures and seminars will continue to be held in Cambridge, but that Allston could host special seminars and elective, laboratory-based experiences. One could imagine lunch at the river-centered Houses as a kind of hinge around which undergraduates would arrange the day. But if the report is convincing from a research point of view, and even from a logistical point of view with regard to instruction of undergraduates, it does not probe the intellectual impact on teaching or research of dividing science within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences between two locations, or weigh the impact of any particular combination of scientific pursuits against any other. Instead, the task force has recommended that a separate faculty committee meet "to examine in greater detail issues related to undergraduate research." This committee's work may be combined with the curricular review now underway.

One of the most significant recommendations came from the task force on undergraduate life, which proposed constructing three to eight new residential Houses on the Allston side of the river and ending undergraduate housing in the former Radcliffe Quad. The committee suggested that the new Houses should be close to the Charles and a little smaller than the existing Houses, but have slightly more space per student to accommodate practice-, performance-, and social-space needs.

In the academic realm, the task force endorsed the idea of undergraduate science research taking place in Allston, along with other afternoon and evening instruction. A library within the complex will be crucial, the group concluded, perhaps one shared with professional-school students. Student-support operations such as the Bureau of Study Counsel, the Office of Career Services, the Office of the Registrar, and the University Health Services should also have outposts in or even be moved to Allston.

And although Allston creates an opportunity to address the dire need for undergraduate rehearsal and performance spaces, and support space for the visual arts, either in proposed freestanding facilities or in the new residential Houses, most of the present athletic facilities will likely need to be relocated to make room for those Houses. The task force therefore emphasized that new athletic facilities should be located as close to the current and future Houses as possible. To relieve traffic along North Harvard Street, a new entrance to the relocated athletic facilities was proposed off Soldiers Field Road.

Finally, the group considered social life and the role of undergraduate organizations, recommending new spaces both in the Houses and perhaps in a student center that could become "the hub of student extracurricular activity on campus." With that kind of undergraduate presence, Allston would become a vibrant campus community.

The task force with perhaps the broadest mandate looked at Allston life, including cultural amenities, housing (both graduate and undergraduate), transportation needs and challenges, and the development of retail services. Each of these areas was examined in the context of four different development frameworks, termed Allston Quads, Allston Yard, Allston Square, and Allston City. The Quads scenario favors a "clustered and campus-oriented design with the ambiance of a familiar type of traditional college. Similar University uses are clustered together and located in one area relatively distinct from the surrounding urban area." The Allston Yard approach is similarly campus-oriented, but has mixed University uses. The Allston Square design would support a cultural and commercial campus that clusters uses and focuses more on the city. (As in Harvard Square, the various uses, such as retail stores or museums, would have distinct locations, but would serve the public as much as the University). Finally, Allston City mixes uses and integrates activities with those of the surrounding community, "creating the most urban ambiance. The University and city uses are combined and spread throughout the area."

These four different frameworks, the "Allston Life" report notes, are intended to "serve as guides in making decisions about the relative emphases in the final plan, rather than as models that could be adopted in their pure form."

In other words, when the report focuses on culture, for example, considering a variety of options for moving to Allston museums that vary by scale and content, the smallest and least ambitious option — to move the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) and build a concert hall — is deemed suitable for a campus-oriented design approach such as Allston Quads or Allston Yard. At the other end of the cost and scope range, a World Museums complex that would include elements of the Peabody Museum, the HMNH, and the Harvard University Art Museums would want to have a much greater city and community orientation. In this way, the report demonstrates that the choices made to satisfy internal Harvard needs will have an impact on the nature of the University's interaction with the surrounding community.

Turning to graduate-student housing, the Allston life task force considered placing from 50 to 70 percent of that Harvard population in a combination of apartment buildings or "Graduate Houses," in Allston and elsewhere. Subsidizing the cost of such facilities, which varies greatly depending on the cost of borrowing, will have an important impact on the University's ambitions in this area.

Solving transportation issues to better link the Allston and Cambridge campuses, the group concluded, appears to be a problem not only of providing better shuttle or tram connections, but also of making the pedestrian crossing experience easier and more pleasant. Another possibility would be a more substantial commitment of resources to build a new bridge or to relocate or deck over Soldiers Field Road.

Perhaps the most romantic notion of all in the Allston reports combines enhancements to the Larz Anderson Bridge with the construction of retail space. Even though goods and services would be available in student centers and stores interspersed throughout the Allston campus or along its main thoroughfares, perhaps even in a neighborhood shopping center, the report considers the creation of a Ponte Vecchio-like atmosphere on the reimagined bridge crossing the Charles River: a vital pulse at what will be the heart of the new campus.