Tata Hall, a $100 million executive-education classroom and residence building designed by Boston’s William Rawn Associates, Architects, is a distinctive new presence on the Harvard Business School campus—and the latest addition by a distinguished architect to the historic fabric of the school. Over the last three decades, Moshe Safdie, FAIA; Robert A. M. Stern, FAIA; and now Rawn, FAIA, have each embraced this challenge in different ways, illustrating how delicate it can be to bridge the gap between past and present.
Located in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, across the Charles River from Cambridge, the idyllic business school campus was laid out almost a century ago by McKim, Mead & White, which won the commission in a design competition in 1925. By that time, the firm’s founders were either dead or retired, and the partners in charge were White’s son, Lawrence Grant White, and James Kellum Smith. White and Smith explicitly connected the new campus to Harvard’s existing one by adopting the Georgian Revival style, which their firm had used earlier for the gates of Harvard Yard, Robinson Hall (the school of architecture), and the Harvard Union.
The original buildings of the business school are competently designed but unremarkable; what is key are the spaces between the buildings. The long dormitories surround different-sized, treed quadrangles, whose pleasant scale is further modulated by interspersed house-sized pavilions. The two dormitory groups flank a green (the landscape architect was Olmsted Brothers); at its head stands the cupola-topped Baker Library. It’s a Georgian version of Jefferson’s plan at the University of Virginia. The curving “main street,” Harvard Way, ends in what was to be an auditorium, but was changed to a dining hall. In a subtle urban design move, the whole plan is slightly cranked to follow the bend of the Charles.
The dormitories, library, and an administration building (named after J.P. Morgan) were built in a two-year flurry of construction, but it took another 40 years to complete the master plan. The various architects adhered to the existing red-brick-and-white-trim style; the last Georgian Revival building, Cotting House, was built as late as 1967.
The following year, Philip Johnson was commissioned to design Burden Hall, an 800-seat auditorium. Following the fashion of that time, Johnson’s solution to building in a historic setting was to simply ignore it. The auditorium is a polygonal volume composed entirely of brutally plain brick walls; the only openings are the emergency exits and a glazed entrance that is about as lyrical as a truck dock. (The university’s current plan is to demolish Burden and replace it with a new facility.)
Burden Hall opened the stylistic floodgates—several undistinguished modernist buildings followed. The final insult was Benjamin Thompson’s graduate student housing, not part of the business school but a major presence on the campus—an alien presence. Like Johnson, Thompson stuck to brick, but his idiosyncratic buildings are all angles and curves. A young Nicholas Lemann, reviewing the project in a 1976 Harvard Crimson article, wrote: “The building shapes that look so pleasing in schematic drawings in real life form a confusing jumble, one in which it’s hard to tell where the order is. The red brick, while offset by inset balconies and windows, is still massive and intimidating.”
The McKim, Mead & White plan did not envisage additions to the campus, but as more buildings appeared it was evident that the school would continue to expand. In 1984, Moshe Safdie, who was then in charge of Harvard’s urban design program, was asked to prepare a master plan to guide future growth. In addition, he was charged with enlarging McKim, Mead & White’s original administration building, Morgan Hall.
The doubling in size of Morgan Hall involved demolishing part of the old structure, adding a floor, rebuilding the end façades, adding new space, and building a brand new façade along one side. Capitalizing on his experience fitting buildings into Jerusalem’s Old City, Safdie took a pragmatic approach. The bright, modern interior includes a very un-Georgian skylit spine, but the rebuilt parts of the old façade, with rearranged windows, replicate the original. On the other hand, the brick and precast concrete façade of the new portion has its own character: Alternating bay and bow windows remind me of the buildings along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay. So while Morgan Hall has two faces, it doesn’t feel disjointed.
Safdie’s façade is neither textbook Georgian, nor a postmodern Georgian pastiche. Instead, it achieves something quite rare and difficult: stylistic coherence without stylistic explicitness. The considered design of Morgan makes the chapel that Safdie later designed next door (it was completed in 1992) all the more baffling. There is a tradition of college chapels as object buildings, but the copper drum intersected by a glass prism is as self-contained—and as mute—as Johnson’s polygonal block.
In 1997, the business school chose Robert A.M. Stern Architects to design a new student center. Stern’s goal, as he put it, was “to rebuild the brand.” Spangler Center does this in several ways. To begin with, the building uses the architectural language of the original campus, resulting in a literal—if slightly more assertive—rendition of 1920s Georgian Revival. Spangler also repeats the pattern established by McKim, Mead & White, by enclosing a quadrangle on one side, and creating a courtyard on the other, both using the slightly canted geometry of the original. Lastly, this large building emulates the domestic scale of the original; the south façade, for example, incorporates a stucco portion that specifically refers to the house pavilions of the original quadrangles. The central lounge of Spangler is a tall room with a paneled and vaulted ceiling. There are club chairs, working (gas) fireplaces, glass bowl pendants, torchères, and wall sconces—not a recessed pot light in sight. It is so well done that at first it feels a little like walking into the set of Downton Abbey—I expect a uniformed footman to bring me tea. Instead, there are casually dressed students with backpacks and laptops, and I get my own tea from the basement cafeteria. As I sit writing up my notes, the comfortable ambience grows on me. The 1925 competition program for the Harvard Business School called for buildings “with as much domestic feeling as is reasonable.” Spangler, which resembles a large country house, more than fulfills this requirement.
Then there’s Tata Hall, completed in December. The building’s lobby is dominated by two large sculptural wooden benches (the work of Matthias Pliessnig) that resemble huge distorted baskets—or maybe lobster pots. Like the benches, Tata’s architecture is untraditional. Moreover, the building willfully repudiates the architectural legacy of the campus. Instead of red brick, there is buff limestone and very large areas of plate glass; instead of enclosure, there is transparency. The large scale is not broken down, and the building curves in a long arc. Instead of quadrangles there are—well, it’s hard to know what to call the undefined bits of lawn. Tata Hall overlooks Soldiers Field Road, a riverside drive that swings by the north edge of the campus. The building is like a curved seven-story billboard—a very handsome billboard—advertising to the drivers passing by that this is a progressive, future-oriented place. Not your grandfather’s business school.
“Anything but Georgian” is very different from “rebuilding the brand.” What happened? Different architect, different patron, different times, but also a change in leadership. The dean who commissioned Safdie’s Morgan addition, John H. McArthur, also built the fitness center, a large building designed by Boston’s Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood Architecture in a style similarly sympathetic to the old campus. His successor, Kim B. Clark, commissioned Stern to build Spangler, and to reconfigure—and add to—the library. The seamless addition continues Spangler’s revival style. Clark’s tenure also saw the construction of a low-key historicist wing that completed the quadrangle next to the library, as called for in the McKim, Mead & White plan. Judging from Tata Hall, the current dean, Nitin Nohria, does not share his predecessors’ interest in the past—or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. The next new building, just starting construction, will be the Chao Center, an executive education facility that replaces the rather lackluster 1950s-era dining hall. The business school’s brief to Boston-based firm Goody Clancy describes the desired character of the new building as “linking to the rich context of the McKim, Mead & White campus and landscape, particularly the Harvard Way axis, while relating to the contemporary design of adjacent Tata Hall.”
This strikes me as a tall order. Queen Anne front and Lady Gaga behind? Goody Clancy’s design for Chao is a mix of not-quite Georgian and not-quite modern: traditional windows with mullions face the campus, elsewhere two-story glazed openings are trimmed in limestone, and a three-story glass box faces Tata. Whether this stylistic cocktail will turn out to be contextual or merely confusing remains to be seen.
It’s not easy to connect the present to the past. You have to decide when to connect and when not to—and exactly what to connect to. It is a nuanced business. Connecting doesn’t mean simply replicating. An architectural revival can be specific or vague, the past can be real or imagined. H. H. Richardson’s Trinity Church reminds you of Romanesque France, while at the same time it’s an integral part of flinty Boston. At the business school, Stern connected to the Georgian Revival of the early 20th century, just as McKim, Mead & White connected to the 18th century—thoughtfully and selectively. In both cases, historical continuity reinforces a sense of place.
Fitting in or sticking out? Too many architects aim only for the latter, assuming that the best way for a new building to connect to the past is through contrast. The problem with this strategy is that it tends to produce one-liners: once you have experienced the contrast, there’s nothing else. All the building has to say is, “That was then, this is now.”