Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Afterthoughts on the "Campus Center"

A friend who apparently does not want to be identified or to post anonymously passed along the following thought about the Campus Center. Perhaps the plan is to have a sort of sterilized version of the Harvard community, safe from infection by the neighbors, with Harvard restaurants and caf├ęs open only to Harvard ID holders.

Let's look at the announcement again.
University planners said the facility is expected to offer large, flexible indoor gathering space for students, faculty, and staff and include food service, lounge, and study areas, as well as space for exhibitions, events, and performances. The first floor of the renovated structure is expected to remain open to the public, offering a mix of retail and food service options.
So it seems that the existing walkthrough will remain open to the public and will continue to have some food options, but you will need a Harvard ID to get into the elevators that will take you up to the Center proper. Study and event spaces I get; Harvard has not enough of either. The critical question is what kind of food service, and for whom. To what problem would Harvard-only food service in the Smith Campus Center be the solution?

It doesn't seem like a good idea to draw undergraduates away from the Houses and Annenberg (the freshman dining area), especially at lunch. It might be a good idea to move the Faculty Club; I don't really know, and mention it only because the Faculty Club seems to be in trouble. Professors I know don't eat there unless the meal is being charged to a Harvard account, and yet it's not classy enough for very high end purposes either. When we have a heavy date with a prospective faculty candidate, we tend to go to Rialto or Harvest instead.

I was musing about this, and thinking about mixed retail-residential dining services I have seen at other universities (Penn, for example), and then I thought of what is happening in Silicon Valley, as described in the New Yorker by George Packer a few months back. Google and other companies are creating bubbles, like human biospheres, catering to all the needs of their communities and isolating them from the rest of the world. These utopian companies even support employees who wish to maintain the illusion that they are living in San Francisco without interacting with it–you can take your private Google bus from your San Francisco pad to the Valley, and thus have a San Francisco zip code but never see anyone except family members and Google employees. San Francisco real estate prices, I am told, now vary inversely with distance from the private bus stops.

Is part of the idea of drawing the Harvard community together to make it possible to withdraw from the daily life of Harvard Square? Or if that is not the intention, have the "Harvard planners" who have been thinking about this planned how to prevent that from happening? Even as Elsie's and Tommy's and the Wursthaus and One Potato, Two Potato have gone to restaurant heaven, the Square is full of places where Harvard eats alongside tourists and locals. All of the blooming, buzzing, non-Harvard confusion that you have to navigate to walk around Harvard is what makes Harvard Harvard. Why would we want to encourage members of the Harvard community (a word that, strikingly, occurs six times in the short Gazette story) to avoid it?

I am sure some of this has been thought through. I don't think an architect would agree to be featured in the lede of the story if no concept sketches, no planning, no estimates had been done. Nor, I imagine, would this particular donor have given a substantial gift without evidence that some planning had been done–his wealth springs from the business of movie theaters, which today is substantially a food business.

I really do hate to think about the worst case, but as with many things at Harvard these days, one suspects that a great deal more thinking by non-educators has been gone into this than has been disclosed by the time the educators in the Harvard community first hear the news.

To what problem is the Campus Center the solution? Is the problem just that Harvard does not have a Campus Center, and you can't any more, in the judgment of the non-educational professionals, be a real university without one? Heavens, until the past few years we did not even have a "campus"--that neologism was brought in by experts in best practices of the industry. How will the Campus Center change Harvard, other than to make it more like everyplace else?

I'd really like to know what John Stilgoe thinks.

No comments:

Post a Comment