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Remarks at the Harvard Graduate School of Design symposium “Can Design Improve Life in Cities?”

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Let me begin by welcoming all of you here today on behalf of the University. I’d like to thank Dean Altshuler, Professor Krieger, and Bill Saunders, editor of Harvard Design Magazine, for organizing this event and for inviting me to speak with you today.

The question this symposium poses strikes me as a particularly interesting – and deceptively complex – one.

The presumptive answer – because the question comes to us in the context of an event presented by the Harvard Design Magazine – must be “yes.”

And because it’s being asked now, in 2005 – the post-Bilbao era – the evidence all around us confirms this presumption.

I won’t bore this group with examples – you know them much better than I. I’ll limit myself to the front of the symposium brochure, which, I think, says it all: Millennium Park in Chicago, with Gehry’s explosive bandstand, Kapoor’s shimmering kidney bean, Plensa’s video fountain – and Gustafson’s delicate park just out of view.

Hundreds of people are gathered together – listening to music, admiring art, strolling – all where, just 10 years ago, there were train tracks and parking lots.

Design clearly can improve life in cities.

But what’s interesting to me is how rapidly the general consensus seems to have changed. As Millennium Park was being built, Cabrini-Green, the worst of Chicago’s high-rise housing projects, was coming down.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m hardly suggesting that Cabrini-Green’s problems were largely attributable to its architecture.

I mention Cabrini-Green because not so very long ago – in my memory and yours – when one talked about the capacity of design to improve urban life, one encountered deep cynicism.

Cabrini-Green, for many, was a symbol of what happened when designers tried to improve urban life. Inspired, as many such housing projects were, by Le Corbusier’s “City of Tomorrow,” Cabrini-Green was design at its worst – an example of the utter failure of architecture to understand and address the practical challenges of city living.

Every city had a few such buildings or projects. Of course, they also had examples of terrific public buildings – some deco, some neo-classical, some modernist. But a few bad projects seem to have contributed to a fairly widespread view that design was or could be responsible for worsening conditions in cities.

I bet you all know too well the old saw, “If you want a bad building, hire a good architect.”

But, you know, you don’t hear it much these days. Now, the motto of many cities – big, medium, and small – might be said to be – to paraphrase my former colleagues in the Clinton administration – “It’s the design, stupid!”

From Bilbao to Milwaukee to Davenport, Iowa, architects are being asked, not just to build good buildings, but to build buildings that will in some fundamental way change the image, the civic life, and even the economy of the city.

What has happened to effect such a change – a change that amounts, on its face anyway, to coming full-circle, back to the idea that design can, should, must be used to improve cities for the better?

And, more important for me and my colleagues here at Harvard, what does this change mean for a university about to embark on a 50-year project to build a new campus embedded in an urban environment, a project that, regardless of the designs of the buildings, will transform the city around it by sheer scope and scale?

These are the questions I’m hoping to discuss with you for most of the rest of the time we have together.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts and advice about a field in which you are the experts and I’m barely a novice.

But permit this novice to spend a few more minutes speculating about the moment we live in and why and how it matters for Harvard.

First, what’s happened to bring us full circle – from design as master physician for urban ills, to design as villain, to design as general hope for our urban future?

To begin with, we probably learned something from the mistakes of our predecessors!

But more important, I suspect, is the empowerment of communities, neighborhoods, and interest groups which have become much more involved with projects that are initiated in their cities.

This is surely to the good – though I can tell you as a CEO that it has made life much more complicated for institutions like this one!

But the empowerment of communities doesn’t tell the whole story either. The context has changed radically, too: financing, availability of space, our understanding of environmental impacts and the importance of sustainability – a host of enormously important and interrelated factors militate against the wholesale transformation of cities a la Moses.

Nonetheless, we find ourselves once again bombarded by rhetoric that sounds like a new version of that of the modernist visionaries of 75 years ago. What’s different about today’s rhetoric about the transformational power of design? And what does it mean for Harvard?

A few observations: first, what we mean when we speak of urban transformation today seems to have changed significantly. And here I’m seeking to characterize the public discussion, not the thinking of designers and planners. Where transformation once meant re-modeling huge swathes of the cityscape – literally tearing down buildings, even neighborhoods, and replacing them with infrastructure and new buildings – it now often means creating a single landmark building or project that will drag behind it, by force of its genius or distinctiveness or mission, the fortunes of the city in which it’s located.

Permit me to say – parenthetically – that many municipal leaders have adopted a much more nuanced approach to urban development. I would put Mayor Menino on that list as one who has been supportive of and engaged in a variety of kinds and scales of projects – from several museum renovations and expansions, to neighborhood improvements, to our own Allston initiative.

But I worry that the public increasingly views planning issues or issues of urban development through the lens of single projects rather than larger contexts.

Returning to my principal theme and second observation, it seems to me in many cities that major changes to the urban fabric are being driven much more than in the past, frequently by institutions -museums, or universities, or libraries. These institutions are seeking to address their own programmatic needs as well as the needs of the cities they inhabit.

I’m not suggesting this is wrong. Indeed, in the best cases, it’s a good thing, with cities supporting institutions and facilitating their projects – and seeking to integrate them into larger urban renewal and development efforts.

What I’m observing is that the partners in urban change have changed and that this presents institutions as well as cities with new kinds of challenges.

Finally, one of the principal objectives of transformation has become the attraction of visitors and the branding of the city as the sort of place that merits investment – by tourists, by the so-called creative class, by potential corporate tenants. The improvement of the city’s infrastructure or the housing of its residents or the rationalization of its organization are often still goals, but tourism seems to rank much more highly than it ever did in the past – reflecting, perhaps, a fundamental change in how we think about the meaning and purpose of urban communities.

I’m being intentionally provocative here.

Some of you may know that that’s gotten me into trouble before!

I acknowledge that I’m generalizing about what I’m calling the new rhetoric about design in cities. And I realize that I’m not giving due attention to recent projects which truly have benefited the cities in which they’ve taken place and represent significant civic and aesthetic achievements.

What I’m trying to do is not to prove a scholarly thesis – there are too many in the room who can point out my errors for that!

Instead, I’m suggesting that, at different times in our recent past, design has been a scapegoat, and it’s been a magic bullet.

I think we’re living in a magic bullet moment right now. And it’s inevitable that in a few years we’ll be hearing how all of these wonderful new buildings we’re seeing now didn’t live up to expectations, didn’t deliver the tourists and the investment that they should have, cost more money than anyone expected, are difficult to maintain.

In some cases these criticisms will be true, in others, untrue. And we’ll all spend lots of time figuring out which is which.

I suppose what I take from all of this is that cities and institutions – and this is especially true for an institution like Harvard engaged in a multi-year development project – must steer a middle course. We cannot run from design, from the very best new ideas and the most exciting architects; we cannot be afraid of their ambition and vision and strangeness.

Nor can we hide behind design, expecting it to cure what ails us, to fill our coffers, to populate our streets and plazas, to make traffic jams dissolve and smog disappear.

Design – by which I mean architects, landscape architects, and planners – is a partner to those of us who build buildings and neighborhoods and campuses, and we must be a good partner in return.

We are, all of us, seeking to create places. A place is somewhere that people inhabit and use. It must work for those people. In one sense, it must be a smoothly functioning machine, enabling those who use it to accomplish what they need to in it – whether that’s living or studying or manufacturing. But it must also be comfortable and welcoming. And it must be a good neighbor to the other places around it.

And, finally, it must inspire, challenge, and be beautiful. Not every place must inspire as Rafael Moneo’s Los Angeles Cathedral does. Nor must every building be as challenging as Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Library. The places we inhabit needn’t always have the simple beauty of University Hall or the ornate monumentality of Memorial Hall.

But every building or plaza or campus has the capacity, and the obligation, to speak to us and to enable us to speak through it – as individuals, as communities.

And this, I think, is what we as patrons of architecture, builders of buildings, designers of places, have an obligation to work together to achieve.

I realize my conclusion may be a bit “middle-of-the-road” – neither visionary nor hellfire and brimstone. But I believe this is my – our – responsibility: Harvard is going to transform itself physically and in the process, and in partnership with the city and our neighbors, will transform a significant part of Boston. Design will improve the campus and the city that results. But we – institutional leaders and designers – have an obligation to be humble and clearsighted, to recognize that – because we are transforming a city – we must be ambitious and cautious, visionary and incremental.

I believe that in such a way, we will create a great campus and contribute to the continued development of a great city.

I thank you for your time and look forward to questions and discussion.