By Branden Adams
Harvard’s announcement of plans to build the Allston science complex contained a variety of justifications for the construction. The first one was stated as a syllogism: “For Harvard to maintain its leadership in the life sciences and compete effectively to attract preeminent research scientists and programs, it is critical that a state-of-the-art science complex be developed as soon as possible.” This phrasing created a situation in which rejection of the construction project could be read as a simultaneous rejection of Harvard’s desire to “compete effectively” with other institutions. Such a technique is nothing new: the University’s planners, as well as its alumni development machine, have by now mastered the practice of accomplishing goals. And it works!
Developers, like those involved with the Allston project, want the public to believe that growth is natural without accepting that growth no longer may be necessary. It seems odd because we Harvardians imagine that Harvard is like an old man—wise and past the tremors of his youth. When Harvard’s Allston Development group tells the city of Boston that it is “critical” that Harvard do this, what exactly do they mean by “critical”? Is it the “critical” situation of a child who has outgrown his playpen?
The most significant quality of the Institutional Master Plan as presented to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) is the one that is implicitly elided: the past story of Harvard’s expansion in Cambridge. A re-telling of this story helps to elucidate how Harvard could claim that its demands were “critical” and thus force the city to allow Harvard to build as it pleases.
The story of Harvard’s expansion begins in the first years of the college’s existence. Starting in the area around Grays and Matthews, the college continued to fill in the current Old Yard. The current Tercentenary Theatre along Quincy Street once hosted professors’ mansions. It is perhaps these homes that Edward Johnson described in his 1654 description of the campus—a description that still carries meaning regarding Harvard’s land acquisition in Allston: “The scituation of this Colledg is very pleasant, at the end of a spacious plain,more like a bowling green, then a Wilderness, neer a fair navigable river, environed with many Neighbouring Towns of note, being so neer, that their houses joyn with her Suburbs, … it is atpresent inlarging by purchase of neighbour houses…”
Until the end of the nineteenth century, expansion continued north across Cambridge Street to the academic buildings that now house the Law School and the Divinity School as well as the cadre of chemistry, biology, geology, and other laboratories. In the early twentieth century, the University began additional development along both sides of the river, building the Stadium in the 1910s, the Business School in the 1920s, and several of the current undergraduate houses in the 1930s. More recently, the University continued to acquire parcels of land in between Massachusetts Avenue and Mount Auburn Street, as well as several plots closer to Brattle Street. Some were for institutional use; others were simply real estate holdings. Important recent growth was the construction of the twin buildings of the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS). Located on opposite sides of Cambridge Street, the two buildings, completed shortly after 2000, were the subject of a bitter dispute between the University and that sociological category referred to in newspapers as “local activists.” The fight was over a proposed tunnel that would connect the two CGIS buildings and would pass underneath Cambridge Street. The Harvard Crimson blamed a failure of communication for the demise of the tunnel project and predicted, as both the community and the university suffered from the failure to reach an agreement, that town and gown would work better together in the future.
This editorial, published in February 2003, might seem odd to the unacquainted for its unequivocal support of the tunnel project. But the language of the arguments doesn’t make sense to anyone unaware that there was supposed to be a tunnel there at some time in the past. This raises an interesting counterpoint to the Allston Development Group’s justification for Harvard’s expansion into Allston.
An article on the tunnel controversy in The Crimson, written more than a year before the tunnel’s eventual failure, states: “The center formerly known as Knafel came under fire again last night—this time for a tunnel crucial to its current design.”
Certainly, no one today would say that the tunnel is “crucial” to its current design.
In fact, if one did not know that there was supposed to be a tunnel there, then one could not even fathom making such a statement. We use CGIS and it works. None of the currently perceived drawbacks of the building–windowless lecture halls, the perfusion of granite, boring white drywall—are in any way related to the tunnel controversy. Yet the controversy was echoed in Allston, along the same lines and in the same language as the CGIS controversy. We begin to see how this notion of “crucial” gets emptied of its meaning when we consider the projects that the University considered “crucial” in the past.
The idea that a new Science Center is not crucial to the development of the university might seem impossible to the Allston Development Group. It would not be difficult to imagine similar discussions happening around every plan that the University has made.
This is not a question of Harvard’s standards; rather, it is about the construction of a certain kind of idea: that of absolutely necessity. If or when the new science complex is completed, those who use its spaces will not see it the way the developers do now. If it is not built, or is built according to a significantly reduced plan, new faculty who come to Harvard will not feel that they are perpetually slighted due to Harvard’s failure to fulfill its original development plan because the details of the original plan will become irrelevant.