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The discreet new charms of Harvard Square

By Melvin Maddocks / December 18, 1985



HARVARD Square has been declared renovated after almost 10 years of jackhammers and detour signs and kibitzer fences. The enterprise is not finished, of course. Cities are never quite finished anymore, the way they were in the days of Athens or Rome, or even London, when one wrapped a wall around the city and that was that. Nowadays cities just keep revising themselves, like the graffiti on their walls.

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And so bulldozers still scrape ground on the corner lot down by the Charles River, beyond the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

A man puffing clouds of steam in the cold Cambridge air bends over a jackhammer on Mount Auburn Street, pulverizing broken bricks at the freshly designed crosswalks to make room for replacements -- already the new has grown old.

Here and there in the shiny grotto of the Harvard Square subway station, tiles wait to be cemented in place.

Dozens of small touches remain to be added, and by then, no doubt, it will be time for another major revision. Harvard Square '85, it will be discovered, no longer says it for the 21st century. Bring on the new architects -- who may, by that date, be occupying the Belfer Center for Public Management, now being finished.

Still, there comes a moment when one has to write finis, the end -- temporarily, of course -- and this December is it.

Would a tree, all guy-wired into perfect posture, be standing near the subway entrance if the project were not completed?

Or would the stone sculpture by Harvard professor Dmitri Hadzi be solidly in place at the northwest end of Out-of-Town News -- ready to become the obligatory controversy without which no public space these days can be said to exist?

Descend the subway. A woman violinist and a singing guitarist entertain on the first level, putting the underground through its acoustics test -- stipulating completion by establishing residency.

Lower down, from a sort of central lobby, a bus can be seen passing in front of a translucent blue wall, pieced out like a horizontal stained-glass window. A movie director could not manage a more magical shot.

Beside a down ramp, more art -- a decorative tile wall. A young employee wipes the handrail beside it, going up the ramp, then going down.

Climb the subway steps again and note the well-ensconced look of the information kiosk, displaying a Boston Symphony schedule and a T-shirt reading, ``Cambridge, one city, one world.''

In fact, few statements could seem less accurate.

There are so many Cambridges. What does the professor with long gray hair, passing by the kiosk with his briefcase balanced on his bicycle, share in common with the young man polishing that handrail below?

What does the young woman in a leather coat, double-parking her BMW while she runs into the Harvard Coop, have to do with the policewoman in an overpadded jacket, about to ticket her car?

A pedestrian strolls from one red-brick island to another -- tiny plazas filled with evergreen tubs, leading to other tiny plazas with evergreen tubs.

Outside Holyoke Center, abandoned stone tables with chessboard insets seem to be waiting for snow to cover them up, obliterating the last memories of summer.

Everything is perfect and discreet but curiously isolated, like a series of stage sets for different plays.

Only an act of nature like snow can bring all the separate stage sets, and all the separate people, together.

College towns used to go in for a cloistered look -- the medieval student tradition. Spires, gray stones, and pale, earnest faces.

The new Harvard Square comes closer to the mood of a medieval fair -- just waiting for the jugglers and jesters.

At moments, those plazas seem prepared to put in place scrubbed and sanitized hippies of the '60s to satisfy the Yuppies of the '80s -- rather like the employees in Colonial costume at Williamsburg.

Playful and random but tolerant, the new Harvard Square invites the same treatment from us. With all the charm in the world, it at least gives us passers-by any number of roles to play while we -- and our architects -- work out our end-of-the-century identity crises. A Wednesday and Friday column