Circling the Square, Banker & Tradesman 10/19/09
By Hubert Murray

Architects and urbanists, much given to thinking about the vitality of cities, as often as not reach out to faraway places to make their point about sidewalk cafes, street performers, hole-in-the-wall enterprises and the effervescence of refulgent capitalism as experienced on summer vacations.

To be sure, two of the most influential urban thinkers of an earlier generation, Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch, each in their own way, brought us home to the West Village and Boston as exemplars of organic neighborhoods, but there is in the profession an intellectual wanderlust that keeps yearning for that greener grass on the other side of the fence.

It is Mo Lotman, author of the newly published "Harvard Square," whom we must thank for reminding us that we have here on our doorstep one of the most successful outdoor spaces, in all seasons, in a western commercial city. This scrapbook collage of images, portraits and reminiscences of the buildings and denizens of Harvard Square is a reflection of its subject &mdash eclectic in style, idiosyncratic in selection and anecdotal in presentation.

It is a delightful trip down memory lane, evoking a largo background rhythm of culture and politics that underscores the allegro of moments and personalities that appear and reappear along the way.

There is an implicit gravity to the narrative however, a lesson for architects and developers whose propensities for order and return on investment are a constant threat to life on the street. In the first of a series of vignettes by those who have experienced the Square, John Updike remembers the commercial chaos of the early fifties as "places that seemed to me anonymous and exempt from Harvard charm [that] saved me from the academic vapors, as it saves the university from preciosity."

While it was the gas stations and the bicycle shops that provided hometown familiarity to Updike, it is these enterprises that cannot survive the inexorable rise in property values and the architectural tendency to tidy things up. The replacement of the Wursthaus and The Tasty with Abercrombie and Fitch and yet another bank is the work of those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

A People's Palace

What Lotman illustrates in abundance is that it is the people of the Square that have endowed it with singular character even more than the buildings (which are for the most part the bland leading the bland). Touchingly and tellingly, this paean to vibrant urban life in America is dedicated to two elderly women, both recently passed away, one Spanish, one French, near neighbors unknown to each other across the Pyrenees, near neighbors and fast friends in Harvard Square. Josefina Yanguas was the patrona of Café Pamplona for almost fifty years and later the Iruña restaurant &mdash both named for towns back home that had resisted Spanish fascism. Genevieve MacMillan was the founder of Henri IV (Hungry Cat in English) and later the Gabrielle patisserie, named respectively for the French king who had come from her home town and, of course, for his favorite mistress.

To return to the lesson. While architects obsess with form and developers treat buildings as "assets," it is quality of life that imbues lasting value to towns and cities. Those who are peddling the New Urbanism and Form-Based Codes are missing the point just as much as the Modernists did in their time. Of all the architects who have laid their hands on this precious square mile, Ben Thompson understood this best, realizing in his Design Research building an audacious modernism that was at the same time a showcase of style. And style is the language of the street.