Editor's Letter: Beyond Buildings

By June Erlick

For years, readers have been commenting on the printed edition of ReVista: “How beautiful!” Now here’s a website to match, thanks to the efforts of the design firm 2communiqué and Kit Barron of DRCLAS. It’s not only a question of reflecting the aesthetics of the printed edition. The new website modernizes navigation, but also is designed to generate dialogue, to bring readers and writers together and build a ReVista community. Enjoy it! Use it! Tell us what you think!

Many a year ago, when I first came to work at DRCLAS, I hosted a summer intern from South Carolina. She was even newer to Cambridge than I was.

On her first day at work, I sent her to mail a FedEx package, instructing her that the drop box was in the lobby of the “really ugly building two blocks down the street.”

She came back defeated. “I looked all around, and I couldn’t find a FedEx box in the ugly building,” she said.
I pressed her for more details. It turns out that her ugly building was the Swedenborg Chapel, a stone gothic revival building that I happen to admire, while mine was across the street: William James Hall, architect Minoru Yamasaki’s 1963 high-rise which Robert Bell Rettig describes in Guide to Cambridge Architecture as “fourteen stories of pure white concrete.”

I should have known better than to describe a building in such a subjective way (even though I still think it’s the ugliest building on campus). Buildings may be made of stone, concrete, glass, steel or bamboo. But in the end, they are architectural creations, acts of imagination, that are viewed in very different ways. Buildings are subjective.

Their very presence helps shape society. The way buildings are viewed, how they are built and who builds them can become ideological battlefield. In my life as a foreign correspondent, I’ve witnessed many fierce debates that ultimately are debates about what buildings represent and how they create a concept of community: should a dictator’s house be torn down or turned into a Culture Ministry? (Nicaragua); should a modern palace—replacing another that was seen as a symbol of Prussian imperialism—be torn down to make way for a partial reconstruction of the original baroque one? (Berlin); should public libraries be designed for poor neighborhoods? (Bogotá).

It was in Colombia that I first discovered how buildings shape the lived environment. The buildings of Rogelio Salmona interweave with the fabric of the society, whether in social housing, public buildings or luxury dwellings. In Nicaragua, I discovered what it meant to have a city literally disappear, its buildings tumbled by an earthquake and never rebuilt. I also learned that solutions are not always easy. City dwellers with peasant roots did not like the Sandinistas’ East German-influenced clean but sterile apartment dwellings that had no gardens and no space for chickens.

It’s not just buildings that shape society, but the parks and playgrounds that surround them, that carve out outdoor living space and centers for interaction, as both Flavio Janches and Anita Berrizbeitia so eloquently explain in this issue.

In so many places where I’ve lived as a correspondent, war, revolution, social upheaval and natural disasters have shaped the way cities are lived in and built. I was recently in the lovely colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala, originally the capital city of the country. After a major earthquake in 1776, the capital was moved to Guatemala City. A friend remarked, “I’m glad there was an earthquake then, because as a capital city, Antigua would have lost its charm.” I had never thought of that.

Major disasters like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile give architects and urban planners an unusual opportunity to think about the meaning of their buildings and green spaces. Oscar Grauer draws on his extensive experience rebuilding Venezuela’s littoral to give us some thoughts on Haiti; Pablo Allard gives us an incisive view on how a small town was rebuilt in Chile after a volcanic eruption.

As I walk to work every day, I pass the Harvard Graduate School of Design. As I peeped into a large glassed-in auditorium this morning, I saw that students were looking at slides of buildings. It’s not just buildings, I wanted to tell them; think about the way that all those buildings have shaped all those lives.