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Today, having a class in the Science Center is a staple of the Harvard College experience. But when the Class of 1973 arrived at Harvard, construction had not even begun on what is now an iconic feature of the University.
The sprawling building, which lies just outside the north gates of Harvard Yard, is home to facilities used by eight academic departments at the University.
First recommended in the 1950s by a faculty committee organized by then-Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean McGeorge Bundy, the project was finally adopted in 1968 after Polaroid Corporation co-founder Edwin H. Land, who attended Harvard for one year but did not complete his degree, donated $12.5 million dollars for its construction. The building was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, then-dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and opened in 1973.
The Science Center was built on the former site of Lawrence Hall, a Harvard building dating back to 1847. In 1970, after Harvard designated Lawrence Hall for demolition to make room for the Science Center, a group of graduate students occupied Lawrence Hall as part of a movement they dubbed the Free University.
The Free University’s goal was to provide Cantabrigians with an alternative, more progressive education. As David Holmstrom — a former Social Studies and Government tutor who had the building’s sole key at the time — told The Crimson in 2019, the Free University “just wanted the building.”
But on May 8, 1970, Lawrence Hall burned down in a fire at 4 a.m., marking the end of the Free University and paving the way for Harvard’s Science Center plans.
After construction broke ground on the Science Center, the building was initially unpopular among many faculty members and students. Some common criticisms of the project included protests from members of the Biology department regarding moving undergraduate instruction away from the department’s main quarters and the building’s design itself.
“We wouldn’t know how to give [Nat Sci 5] three blocks away,” said former Harvard Biology professor George Wald to The Crimson at the time. “The undergraduates would be getting a hell of a lot poorer instruction than now.”
According to Peter Shapiro ’74, many student criticisms of the building stemmed from a dislike of the brutalist style the building was designed in — the same technique used for the also-controversial Boston City Hall, completed in 1968.
“There was tremendous amount of sentiment thinking that the building was ugly and didn’t fit in,” Shapiro, a former Crimson managing editor, said in an interview. “It was the case that, in general, all modern architecture was thought of as not fitting in and the Science Center was particularly large and looming and brutalist in its style.”
Proponents of the Science Center contended that creating a central hub for undergraduate science instruction would improve the experience of Harvard College’s science students.
After its initial construction, the building has undergone several renovations, including an expansion that took place in 2002.
“There were a number of departments that were growing rapidly. History of Science, computational science, and Statistics were all growing very rapidly and needed more space,” said Andrea Leers, lead architect of the building’s 2002 expansion. “At that point, we were asked to look at how much new space could be captured in vertical additions almost independently of what they needed — they were looking for as much space as possible to enlarge.”
The project’s architects tried to “enter into the mindset of that building” to preserve its distinctive look and feel while ensuring it “wasn’t going to be more of the same,” she said.
Leers said she has been asked to work on the building in projects after the 2002 expansion, including renovating the second floor of the Cabot Science Library and “some laboratory renovations on the first and second floors,” adding that the building has the capacity to adapt over time.
“The building has got good bones — it’s a great framework. It is capable of change and evolution and I think it has a long life ahead of it,” she said.
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