Thursday, February 5, 2009

Allston skyline (1): the temple of Biotechnology

6 February

We don't have much of a skyline in Allston, and for the most part that's fine with us. The main exceptions occur along the Charles River, where the spacious perspective calls for large, even dramatic buildings, that would be out of scale anywhere else in the neighborhood. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the Genzyme manufacturing plant, an outsized and eccentric structure that asserts itself unashamedly in the foreground of the riverscape.

The building's design is said to owe much to Genzyme's eminent CEO, Henri Termeer, an architecture buff who wanted it to be compatible with the red-brick Harvard architecture it adjoins along the river. But a quick glance tells you that, red brick aside, the Genzyme factory has little in common with its Harvard neighbors. It has more to do with another red-brick neighbor, the power plant on the Cambridge side, particularly as the industrial uses of the Genzyme building show clearly through its oversized and deceptively contoured windows. But really the Genzyme plant looks like none of its neighbor structures, or anything else I've ever seen, except perhaps ... yes, a Gothic cathedral! Doesn't it? With its lofty nave-like shape, its clerestory windows, its side gables that suggest chapels, transepts, or even flying buttresses? Not a literal cathedral--the components are too oddly rearranged, and who ever heard of a red-brick cathedral? And not a complete one: it lacks a section, the apse, with sanctuary and apsidial chapels on the east end. But wait. All that scaffolding and those cranes working on the east side, are they going to complete the 'cathedral' structure at last? It's hard to tell right now, but from the designs I saw when the new project was launched, I think they might.

When the original plant opened, Mr. Termeer told reviewer Robert Campbell that he hoped the new building would be a "symbol of biotechnology," humankind's next great adventure. As it happened, Campbell wasn't buying, and instead he saw the architectural grandeur as merely mystifying. Campbell complained that the building's industrial uses are disguised by its elegant envelope, but Termeer's idea was just the opposite: to point to the ennobling possibilities in the new industry. Thousands of sufferers from Gaucher's disease will go on living because of work done in the Genzyme plant, just as pilgrims visited the original cathedrals in search of miraculous cures. 

Now that Harvard owns all the rest of that tract behind the Genzyme building--owns the building itself, with a long-term lease--there is every chance that that bold symbolic statement will come to mean much more than even the far-sighted Mr. Termeer might have predicted. Imagine stem-cell research going ahead full-speed just down the road in Stefan Behnisch's futuristically green laboratory buildings. Imagine that the rest of Harvard's new Science Complex is lit up with similar researches in biotechnology and the other sciences of our new century. The almost theological claims of the Genzymne plant's architecture--which Campbell and others called into question at the time--could be fulfilled in the new technological precincts of Harvard's Allston campus, a summum of enlightened scientific culture.  

Or not. Maybe prudence will triumph over vision, and Harvard will choose to hold on to its billions in endowment dollars, rather than invest them in fulfilling its campus idea. Maybe Termeer's monument will remain a lonely outpost of what could be. The great cathedrals took centuries to build, and the first generations never saw the fruits of their labors. But I take hope from the boldness of the Genzyme building, and look forward to the time when it stands for and points toward a renewed Allston.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What Does Allston Want?

4 February

It's been two months since the results of Allston's Needs Assessment Survey were tabulated and presented to the community. In that time Harvard has apparently lost a ton of money and made public noises reassessing its commitment to expand into Allston, while the City and the BRA have been notably silent on all aspects of Allston's future development. Meanwhile the rest of us go on living here, wondering what our city government and our Large Neighbor to the North have in store for us. Let's not forget, though--even if others might prefer to--that a year ago we were promised something grand, what Harvard's lawyers called a "major transformational project," toward which the needs assessment was a first step.  This promise was part of the community benefits agreement signed by Harvard and the City as part of the approval for the Science Complex--mitigation, that is, for the gigantic construction project unfolding on Western Ave. Whatever else Harvard builds or doesn't build in Allston, we have a right to expect that 'transformational project' to move forward.

So what will it be?  

Sorting through the mass of data collected by the survey, one theme clearly emerges: local folks want Harvard to enhance educational opportunities in our neighborhood. Much of the focus is on helping kids do well in school and prepare for college: tutoring, summer opportunities, counseling and mentoring all place high on the list of priorities. Looking more closely, you can se that other particular needs emerge: immigrants (a third of our community) want more ESL classes, seniors are looking for adult education and other services. Logically enough, people look to Harvard for a share in its educational bounty--and indeed the educational portal is already a small step in this direction.

But what about other needs? Some are routine: people want potholes filled, sidewalks repaired, snow shoveled. Maybe Harvard can help with these things, or maybe the city could do its job better. Large support is voiced for better water quality in the Charles River, though I believe this may exceed the scope even of Harvard. Better access to the river, on the other hand, is something Harvard really could help with, as it owns quite a lot of the adjacent land. 

All these wonderful thoughts about improving our neighborhood with Harvard's help soon lead to that other large process, the Community-Wide Plan (CWP) undertaken by the city last year as a counterpart to Harvard's campus planning. The CWP hasn't made a lot of progress, but in some ways the Needs Assessment offers good advice for how that CWP, designed by the BRA and supported by Harvard, could lead to substantial, timely, and essential improvements in our quality of life. Here are a few suggestions:

  • All those educational programs need not only dedicated funding but a home more substantial than the temporary portal structure. A Community Center would be truly transformative for our neighborhood just as the Honan Library was a few years ago.
  • Such a Community Center needs to be sited and planned for in the CWP process right now, so as to serve as a linch pin for other community planning. The whole point of the CWP is to take a larger view of our community's development.
  • Placed anywhere along Western Ave., the Community Center will enliven its surroundings with foot traffic and activity, and thus serve a major goal of the CWP and its parent plan the Strategic Framework: making Western Ave. into a distinguished 'boulevard' or 'main street.'
  • What makes the most sense to me, though, would be a site in between the two centers of activity at Barry's Corner and Brighton Mills, adding animation to that whole half-mile stretch. This points to Smith Field, that vast and greatly underused neighborhood asset: why not build the Community Center within or next to Smith Field, as part of a larger redesign to make the park more street-accessible and lively?
  • The Community Center/Smith Field idea points to another need highlighted by the survey: for better indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, sports programs, even a gym and pool. Imagine the synergy in a Center where kids (and adults) could go for educational enrichment and counseling, and also play sports all year round? Now the 'transformational' possibilities are hugely expanded, and we would have one of the most desirable community assets imaginable.
   There is much more that needs to be incorporated into the CWP, more to negotiate with Harvard, more to say about their campus planning. But the time to move on the Community Center is NOW, while the Science Complex is under construction, the needs assessment is fresh in our minds, and before Harvard 'forgets' its promise to our neighborhood. Siting and preparing to build such a Center will not only start to transform the neighborhood, but it could give new life to a stagnating CWP, and remind us all of the visionary possibilities we imagined years ago when this whole process began.