If You Build It (Beautifully), They’ll Come: A Harvard Story

People joke about the Boston accent, made famous by the Wahlberg brothers, television reruns of Cheers, and the genius MIT janitor in Good Will Hunting. There’s Boston Chowder, and the Boston Red Sox and their rather extreme weather (Massachusetts has two seasons: winter and building). What we never laugh at is Harvard; the epitome of elite education.

The prestige didn’t come overnight, the earliest buildings date back to the 1600s – by then not even cows had begun to graze in the fields of what would become the University of Sydney.

The centuries have allowed a roll call of prestigious alumni, some household names such as John F Kennedy, Barack Obama and Bill Gates. There are many, many more not immediately recognizable names and faces that have made a difference in the world, including 161 Nobel laureates.

For the class of 2026, there were 40,000 applicants – less than 5% were accepted, selected from over 60 countries. It’s elite, selective and ambitious and it never occurred to me that in the American summer of 2022 I would be walking across campus with my son, back to his dorm on campus at Harvard Business School, in a state of architectural and maternal joy.

Harvard is spread over multiple campuses, adding to an institution of 600 buildings spread over 2,000 acres in the state of Massachusetts. The HBS campus is relatively new, having been established in 1908, although it was designed to blend seamlessly with the style and effect of Harvard Yard, just a 15 minute walk across the Charles River. It feels elegantly aged. The concept of Georgian town squares lined with buildings made of small, irregular red brick, with crisp white detailing, was successfully replicated at most Boston sites.

Lush green lawns with immaculately manicured gardens under giant shade trees offer HBS surrounding dormitories and libraries, the perfect outlook – and offer the idea of ​​chance encounters as students criss-cross the grounds, stopping often to sit and chat in vibrant crimson Adirondack lawn chairs, or inside the artfully sleek glass Schwartz Pavilion that looks like it’s slipped into place under the branches of the township’s trees.

When the weather turns brutal, and it does, foot traffic moves underground to a series of tunnels that connect most of the buildings, sharing space with the highly efficient steam heating system that spans four kilometers both underground and on the Charles River.

This interaction of people in transit so to speak, is intentional in its design. It’s more than collegial thinking; this is the core of Harvard’s philosophy, to create spaces that encourage enlightening and vigorous discourse. Harvard was the first college to use the “case method” of learning – and HBS’s lecture hall-like classrooms were designed around this energetic, participant-focused concept.

Australian MBA student Jess Carey says the architecture of the classroom, combined with the case method, invites a whole new way of learning.

“Being almost in a circle, we (the students) are face to face – not sitting facing a lecturer. Here, you are put in a more dynamic position, you can be called upon at any time. You interact with the other students you meet. That’s exciting. In older style conference situations it is much more passive. You sit facing forward, your interaction with the teacher or other students is very limited,” says Carey.

But between classes, students and faculty walk or cycle between buildings that reek of history, past scholarship, and extraordinary, rare opportunities. With that comes a burden of responsibility – don’t waste time, don’t fail, be as good as everyone who came before you. From HBS’s Baker Bloomberg Library to the majestic steps of Harvard Yard’s Widener Library, the message is clear; don’t blow this up. So no pressure then.

“I had never seen the campus before I arrived – I had never looked once,” says Carey, who had no preconceived idea of ​​how the atmosphere, if anything, would influence his years in school. studying in Boston. So it was surprising to him when the environment had such an impact.

“Absolutely. I think it’s really hard to ignore the sense of history in the buildings and the gardens – you think of the different spirits that have been here, the leaders that have walked the grounds and studied here – it makes you inspire,” Carey says. A beat later, he adds, “It’s also intimidating.”

The pressure on Harvard students to perform, excel, and perform is relentless. It’s no surprise, then, that many who experience campus view landscape architecture as essential to their success here. Finding organic peace in a lifestyle that races against the clock is valuable.

“My favorite space is in front of my old dorm, in Hamilton Hall. It was and is so peaceful, the gardens and trees around the square are so beautiful. It provides a perfect place for respite, and it’s so important.

It is, of course, an exorbitant expense to maintain centuries-old buildings, such as the Hogwarts which is reminiscent of the Victorian Gothic Memorial Hall (completed in 1878), with its magnificent stained glass transepts and imposing wooden trusses. It is not a place of worship as one might imagine, but rather three distinct spaces; including the Annanberg Dining Room (bring the owls) and the Globe-inspired Sanders Theater where Gorbachev, Churchill and Martin Luther King took the pulpit. Those with a penchant for online learning can stumble upon series of lectures recorded in this rather dynamic space, it is a theater of education.

Repairs to historic and listed properties are universally difficult, time-consuming – and important. Memorial Hall’s bell tower was destroyed by fire in 1956. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the unique, colorful spire, lined with slate and copper tiles, was restored, taking its rightful place in campus skyline.

It is of course equally prohibitive to commission an inspiring expansion, such as Renzo Piano’s work (in collaboration with Payette) on Harvard’s art museums, or to greenlight entirely new buildings like the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) and Applied Sciences recently completed. , purposely positioned on Soldiers Field Road and the HBS campus – in hopes of more interaction with alumni in the form of seed money for future discoveries.

Created by architectural firm Behnisch Architekten, the cost of the eight-storey center (six above ground), spread over 2 hectares of land, would have cost $1 billion – although the buildings centered on the laboratories are notoriously prohibitive, it is nevertheless an alarming amount.

Where does the money come from? Endowments. Harvard has the largest endowment in the world, estimated at US$41 billion. Philanthropy for The Crimson seems to be bottomless – or is it?

Beyond the exorbitant cost of maintaining and expanding the university, one must also consider the effect of a controversial architectural design such as that seen with the SEC. When looking through an ivy league lens, one has to wonder, is this a Harvard building? Some, rather controversially (and perhaps accurately) have described the exterior aesthetic as having the charm of a cheese grater with the glossy building curtain offering eco-friendly climate control, but none of the earthy charm of the central buildings.

Is this what students envision when they dream of their future education – all the atriums and pine furniture laden with relaxation areas? Or is it the red bricks, ornate path lights, and white-framed, six-paned windows overlooking a common postcard? Giant hinges on heavy wooden doors, bronze statues and Doric columns? In fact, is the quirky architecture and design of the campus an essential element in conveying a sense of generational wisdom sought after by students around the world. And will endowments continue if new buildings fall into the modern vernacular with green credentials but bland visual appeal?

“You can’t invent a sense of history – so I think it’s appropriate that new buildings don’t have a pretense – but at the same time there’s an expectation,” says Carey.

One wonders if a 6-storey glass and steel building, with vertiginous atriums and walls covered with CLT will be the inspiration for future school achievements.

In contrast, we turn to perhaps the most modest and second-oldest of all Harvard buildings. That of Wadsworth House, at Harvard Yard.

This small plank and brick cottage was the residence of the president of Harvard University from 1776. However, it was made more famous by General George Washington, who used the house as his first Massachusetts headquarters. , and it was from this simple house that the general rode on horseback. to take command of the Continental Army, and the independence of America was truly begun.

If there was ever a place that inspired great thought, that imbued a sense of potential, of destiny, perhaps it was in the Shady Gardens of Harvard. At least for the moment.

Image: Memorial Hall / Supplied.