Harvard Business School occupies a majestic bend on the Boston side of the Charles River. McKim Mead and White designed the original Georgian campus in the 1920’s, with landscape design by Frederick Law Olmstead. The twelve buildings organized around courtyards and centered on Baker Library are a fit reflection of Harvard University’s campus directly across the river.
It took several decades for HBS to outgrow its core campus. As it expanded, some of Boston’s best architect’s created undistinguished work on prime sites. From Shepley Bulfinch’s 1970 McCullum Center to Ben Thompson’s 1976 Soldier’s Field Park, to CBT’s 1999 MacArthur Hall to Machado Silvetti’s 2003 One Western Avenue, Harvard lined the riverfront with buildings that were ordinary in concept and execution, did little to enhance the quality of the campus and nothing to connect to the river. Although One Western Avenue suffered blistering criticism when it opened, I find MacArthur Hall the most offensive of the bunch. There is a limit to how tall a building can be, how applied it’s sloped roofs, and how massive it’s fake chimneys and still be called Georgian. MacArthur exceeds all measures on all counts.
Thankfully, now there is Tata Hall, the final building along the river between the original HBS campus and Western Avenue. William Rawn Associates is a consistently good design firm; at Tata they are great. First, the building is beautiful; the proportions, the materials, the scale and the graceful curve. Second, it relates to the river. As the river curves one way, so the building curves in response, creating a front lawn that both belongs to this particular building but also relates to the entire riverbank. Third, Tata is generous enough to help its less fortunate neighbors. Tata’s defining curve obscures MacArthur on one side and Soldier’s Field Park on the other. Not in a brusque way, but in a manner that says, “you guys are background buildings and can settle in behind me.”
Tata does not only pay attention to the river. The HBS campus entrance respects and enhances its neighbors. Tata’s large two-story flow-through glass lobby is on axis with the massive symmetrical face of Kresge Hall. Kresge seems more connected to the river now than it did with an empty site in front of it. That situation will change as Kresge is in the throes of demolition to make way for Goody Clancy’s new Chao Center. Let’s hope that the interplay with the two new buildings is as successful.
I must admit that the intersection details of the three wings and undulating entrance seem overly complicated; maintaining the sweep of the river facade on the campus side would have created cleaner massing and a more noble entrance. But on the scale of this buildings success, that is a quibble.
More than thirty years ago, Bill Rawn and I were in graduate school together. I was a competent, often talented student. Bill was an inspired designer. For three decades I have enjoyed living and working among more and more of his completed work. Now, I enjoy Tata Hall whenever I travel the river. HBS, and all of Boston, is better for his effort.