Drawing a pretty architectural diagram with lots of pictures of people is easy. Creating a real vibrant community where people want to go is harder. Harvard has noble intentions and many very good ideas for the new science campus (PDF) it is planning in Allston. I’ve praised it in the past.
Professor Peter Galison had a thoughtful column in the Harvard Crimson earlier this month outlining how the well-meaning Allston plan could either turn into a great community or an empty shell, depending on whether the streets become places students and community members want to spend time, or just conduits to travel to and from work or class in faceless research buildings. “Here’s the acid test,” he writes: “It is 6:30 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday or Friday or Saturday—and if you don’t think it would be great to go to Allston, if ‘back to the Square’ is on the tip of your tongue and you would never think of going ‘back to Allston,’ then we will have failed.”
Galison identifies two major components that could tip the balance - performing and visual arts spaces for students and faculty, and the sort of street activity Richard Florida calls “street-level culture” - late night coffee shops and jazz clubs and other attractions for spontaneous enjoyment.
I’d add a third: student organizing space, including the arts studios and performances spaces Galison focuses on but also meeting rooms and social lounges in semi-public areas. A vibrant campus needs opportunities for people to congregate for organized purposes or just spontaneous socialization, places that are outside of individual rooms and don’t require booking far in advance, which are quiet enough to permit conversation but public enough that people feel part of a larger community rather than isolated in a quiet corner. Well designed office spaces exhibit this characteristic with glass conference rooms and “water cooler” spaces; the best campuses do as well.
Harvard has put great thought into their Allston plan, and elements of the proposal such as performing arts space and a student center suggest they are on the right track. I’m hopeful, for the sake of the institution, the students, and the larger community, that they succeed in creating a real center of activity that is more than just a collection of buildings.