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SECs in the City

AirSpace

By Charlotte A. Nickerson
By Charlotte A. Nickerson, Crimson Opinion Writer
Charlotte A. Nickerson ’24 is a History concentrator in Dudley House. Her column, “AirSpace,” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

There are several things that make the Harvard Science and Engineering Complex’s design perplexing. Its location in Allston was historically low-lying marshland that experienced continual nuisance flooding. Even as the SEC’s landscape was designed to mitigate flooding, it has two lower levels of basement.

The SEC’s theoretical grandeur is inhibited by its physical reality. And not just when the water comes rising.

The SEC was a large part of why I quit engineering. The 20 minutes or so I spent each way on the crowded Allston Loop shuttle was often rife with anxiety. Classes in the SEC spelled the terminus of my productivity. Its broad open spaces — noises precipitating from several floors above, nothing separating you from the views of passers-by — made it impossible to focus in the building. Messing with few-and-far-between outlets under heavy metal drain holes in “flat flexible” classrooms interrupted the smooth flow of my work.

The multilevel bee-hive atrium, labs and offices generically sectioned off by green curtains, and a floorplan that made no sense to me created a space that felt as impersonal as my relationship with the engineering and applied sciences departments’ advisers. By the end of the semester, I’d stopped going to class altogether.

The “shimmering second skin” on the exterior grated at my eyes. The subterranean outdoor courtyard intended as a study space always had its doors locked when I checked. The grand atrium resembles a panopticon, a place where someone at the top could see into every balcony. In the SEC, I always felt alone and surveilled.

The SEC cost about $1 billion to build. Tuft’s Science and Engineering Complex, which opened in 2017, cost $110 million. But what can you get at these sky-high prices?

These buildings share huge budgets, huge square footage, and a claim to sustainability and community focus. But mostly, they signal a commitment to research without specificity.

The SEC has been named one of the most sustainable, energy-efficient labs in the world. But in my observations, it also contains a lot of glass, which is generally not very energy efficient. With equivalent insulating power to just a couple sheets of cardboard, large amounts of glass cause buildings to overheat in the summertime and cool to uncomfortable temperatures in the winter.

Glass spaces are also uncomfortable on a psychological level. People who live in glass spaces tend to disguise it first: The majority of people living in glass towers keep their shades down. Enter the SEC, and you’ll see many of the green curtain partitions outside of labs closed — hardly an effective way to bring the outside in.

On a human level, the glass box, no matter how functional or innovative, causes stress. Glass has no strong visual properties of its own; it is a transparent, generalized material that dully follows its surroundings. In a study by psychologist Colin Ellard, people’s level of stress rose dramatically when walking past boring, generic buildings, as compared to visually distinctive ones. Glass, a material so bland you sometimes don’t even realize it’s there, is undoubtedly boring.

There are things architects can do to make glass less energy inefficient — like triple-glazing (and the builders of SEC did do it!). But they can’t make glass any less glass, with its uncomfortable psychological impacts on human inhabitants.

The layout of schools can affect childrens’ rate of learning by 25 percent — either positively or negatively — each year. This makes it even more important that Harvard, first and foremost an educational institution, keeps design elements central in mind when renovating and building spaces for students to learn and live in.

Charlotte A. Nickerson ’24 is a History concentrator in Dudley House. Her column, “AirSpace,” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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