Campus & Community

A revitalized Science Center

6 min read

Promenade area re-envisioned as dynamic commons, library space

There are places in which you linger and places you leave as quickly as you can. Libraries, coffee shops, museums, and parks seduce you to stay. Crowded train stations, noisy restaurants, and too much concrete convince you to keep going. For many passersby, the promenade of the Science Center has become a place to pass through, without pausing. But that’s about to change.

“We want to change the pace and feel of it. Go back to the original intent when the building was built, so it’s less of a Grand Central Station for people rushing through and more of a place you want to linger and look at things, and collaborate in,” said Professor Jeffrey Schnapp, chairman of the faculty committee involved in creating the design brief for renovations set to start after the next Commencement.

The main floor of the Science Center, including the Cabot Science Library, the Greenhouse Café, and exterior spaces, will be transformed to create a dynamic, 24-hour student commons and a technology-integrated library, changes directed in part by input from undergraduates. Where there are walls, there will be windows, or no walls at all, to open up a flexible space connecting the library, a coffee shop, food services, study space, and, most importantly, the people who make the Science Center one of the most actively used buildings on campus.

The goal, said Mack Scogin, Kajima Professor in Practice of Architecture and former chairman of the Harvard Department of Architecture, is to create “a place of learning and a place of sharing and accessing information and knowledge and ideas.” Scogin and his partner, Merrill Elam, are the lead architects on the project. Their design creates spaces easily adapted to meet changing student needs.

“Everything moves, comes apart, transforms,” said Scogin.

There are social areas and study spaces, places to be alone and spaces that enhance and encourage collaboration among students, among students and faculty, and more, all of whom will be able to move across the hall and around the building to continue conversations that start in the classroom.

“In the Science Center particularly, once classes are over, you have to leave the room to allow in the next class. But students and faculty are looking for collaborative, comfortable spaces where they could easily move for further conversation. What better place than a library to continue the learning outside of the classroom?” said Susan Fliss, associate University librarian for research, teaching and learning, and director and librarian of the Monroe C. Gutman Library.

A generous gift from Penny Pritzker ’81, as part of The Campaign for Arts and Sciences, propels this project at one of the most iconic buildings on campus. It was built in 1973 and designed by Josep Lluís Sert, then dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). The renovation is expected to be completed in the summer of 2017.

For the Cabot Science Library, the effort will mean a metamorphosis. For one thing, people will be able to see into the library. Instead of solid walls and tiny windows that make the library easy to miss, there will be glass walls and open spaces with new technology redefining how the library and its users interact.

Schnapp, professor of Romance languages and literature at GSD, director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, and director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, explained: “All of us are striving to make this project not just about renovating and upgrading a library of key importance to the Science Center, in a key building on campus, but also to make it a state-of-the-art library that really attempts to implement new functions, new kinds of spaces, new kinds of opportunities to really begin to answer the question of what a library is and what a library could be in the 21st century.”

Fliss said students now turn to a variety of information sources. “Students will have their laptop in front of them working on documents and they may be sitting in front of computers that belong to the library reading articles online. They may have books or notes spread out across the desk or table. There’s information in every single one of those things, and they’re pulling information and their ideas together, sometimes in text, sometimes in multimedia, sometimes in objects or computer programs or visualizations of a concept map — in expressions of knowledge that they’ve created.

“Students want everything,” she said. “They want the quiet spaces to be alone with their thoughts. They want collaborative spaces to work with others. They want collaborative spaces to be near others but work alone, and they want to do this in spaces that are like libraries with books around them. They want it all and use it all.”

The new Cabot Science Library aims to provide it all, as part of one flexible, collaboration-focused open space. Students will find the different kinds of environments they want, not to mention different kinds of coffee, with integrated learning support through technology and a research staff dedicated to helping them apply this technology to meet their changing and challenging needs.

Near the entrance to the reimagined library will be a mobile discovery bar where students can sample new technologies, try novel mobile apps, assess online tutorials, and participate in student project testing. The lower level will include a new entrance to the Harvard University Information Technology lab, as well as group study rooms, media production labs, a large classroom for workshops, and collections in mathematics and across the sciences. There also will be dedicated space for students to meet with staff for research, teaching, and learning support.

During the renovation, library services will be offered and staff will be located on the second floor, where there also will be open study space, computers, and staff from the library and information technology.

When the center commons reopens, it will be a place that reflects its past but works toward the future, like the space around it.

“The notion of a library as a fundamentally social space, where ideas are animated and engaged in collaboratively, is really an ancient idea,” said Schnapp.

Libraries always have had a mix of functions. The notion of a library as a place of contemplation, silence, reflection, always has coexisted with the notion of a library as a social space where ideas are activated by communities, and knowledge is performed and not just produced,” Schnapp said. “In a contemporary context, we need to bring back to the fore some of those more collaborative, social aspects while recognizing that the ways in which collaboration is happening today are changing.”