Monday, March 2, 2009

Imperial Harvard

March 2

One of the most interesting though little noted architectural sculptures adorning the landscapes of Allston, Harvard and the Charles River Basin is this one, atop the pylon that marks the Cambridge approach to the Anderson Bridge. What the sculpture depicts is an empty suit of Roman armor, surmounted by a rather fierce-looking eagle. The composition strongly evokes the demise of the armor's wearer. The memorial plaque exhorts Harvard's students, who must pass it en route to the athletic facilities, to reflect on their patriotic obligations (and perhaps see their training in the sports arena as preparation for that higher-stakes engagement).

The bridge is often mistakenly identified with the name of its donor, Larz Anderson, though it really commemorates his father, Nicholas Longworth Anderson. Anderson senior achieved glory while still in his 20's as a private, then colonel, and finally lieutenant general in the Union army, where he directed a number of important campaigns. The rather bleak representation contrasts with his military success and subsequently benign life managing the family fortune, a life that ended not on the battlefield but in belle-epoque Paris. Yet the stern lesson of sacrifice and duty endures in his name.

Erected in 1913, the bridge is a small but integral feature of what architectural historians call 'Imperial Harvard,' a stylistic term that describes quite a few structures built on the campus between the Civil War and the Great War (and a little after). The preeminent instance of Imperial Harvard  is Widener Library, with its massive columns and forbidding scale. Emerson Hall to its east captures something of the same spirit, as does Langdell Hall at the Law School, and perhaps the enormous pilasters of Lehmann Hall that loom over Harvard Square from within the Yard. In the same spirit is the rather ghastly Sargent mural inside Widener, depicting fresh-faced doughboys rescuing the damsel France from the clutches of diabolical Teutons. In all this confident, even triumphalist iconography we can read the pride of a university that under President Eliot's tutelage had become one of the world's finest, and a nation that had come to dominate international affairs. The sacrifice implied by that empty suit of armor yielded a handsome return. 
What interests me in all this is not just antiquarian curiosity but the lessons one might bring to bear on the future. Architectural styles change, as do the institutional identities often codified in those styles. In its next great building phase, instituted by Eliot's successor A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard created the river houses in the friendlier and more accessible neo-Georgian style that has come to characterize the university's visual identity in our day. Despite the locked gates I mentioned in an earlier post, those houses in their design suggest community, conviviality, shared purpose. Lowell's idea in building them was to democratize residential life for undergraduates, who had stratified by family wealth into an array of luxury apartments and exclusive clubs on the one hand and spartan dorms and rooming houses on the other. Like their monastic antecedents, the houses were intended to level such distinctions, as if in preparation for the more democratic post-WWII era.

So what will Harvard's institutional identity come to be in our new century, and how will that be stylistically expressed? Here's a dark view, suggested to me just this morning in the dispute that has publicly surfaced among Harvard's biological scientists. Pure knowledge, some claim, is being displaced by applied technologies, foundational research giving way to enterprise (and patent income). In this spirit a future bridge might be named for its sponsor and emblazoned, not with an icon of civic virtue, but a corporate logo. This would effectively caricature the sort of 21st century university Larry Summers seemed to have in mind when he embarked on his Allston adventure.

Now Summers is gone--kicked upstairs so to speak--and President Faust has her chance to stamp a new identity on the university. Perhaps that identity will be characterized by the sensitivity and openness to dialog that are said to be her strengths. Perhaps that new identity will have little to do with Allston--recent news stories would support this view--though there remains the awkward question of those 350 acres of Allston land Harvard owns. But here's a more cheerful possibility. Maybe the new Harvard will grow into its Allston holdings after all. Maybe it will build on the green design of its first new project, and follow through with its promise to make a permeable, welcoming, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly campus. Perhaps it will follow up its tentative steps to engage with the local community, to be a presence in its schools and a resource for its residents. Leaving behind its centuries of parochial inwardness, setting aside the pretensions of imperial ascendancy, perhaps the next incarnation of Harvard will be one of real community, not the self-contained communities of the river houses but the interwoven and sustainable community it could form with its neighbors and its adjacent cities. Such a conception of a great university would be an innovation worthy of a new century.