A New Harvard Controversy

Plans to renovate a historic library reading room by Alvar Aalto is provoking protests

Alterations to a quiet poetry room, designed by Alvar Aalto for Harvard’s Lamont Library, have sparked protest from members of the university’s Graduate School of Design and others in the preservation community. The work is currently underway inside the Woodberry Poetry Reading Room, which was designed in 1949 and is one of only four Aalto projects in America. The 1,030-square-foot room was designed for the intimate enjoyment of poetry. Four consoles were equipped with record players, and ambient lighting and comfortable seating enhanced the contemplative atmosphere.

The Woodberry is cited as a particularly fine example of both mid-century interiors and of Aalto’s execution of design that completely integrates finishes, furnishings, and lighting. Toshiko Mori, chair of the Department of Architecture at GSD, calls this room “one of the greatest examples in this country of total design.”

But after 60 years of use, Harvard plans to update the room’s technological capacity and replace worn-out elements. Two of the consoles have been removed, and the remaining two will be converted into reading tables. Aalto’s original Artek seating will be replaced by more durable furniture and rearranged, and lighting will be moved accordingly. One of the bookshelves is cited as a security concern and will be taken out to provide librarians with a more unobstructed view. Lastly, the room will be equipped for computer use; digital recordings will coexist with vinyl.

Mori spearheaded the faculty protest and has, along with Harvard architecture school graduate Frederic Schwartz, FAIA, initiated a letter-writing campaign against the project. Mori learned of the renovation from an anonymous letter and has requested a stay of execution on a “very drastic renovation that removes any trace of Aalto.”

“This reading room is highly significant and quite rare,” says World Monuments Fund Vice President of Field Projects John Stubbs, who has gotten involved with Mori’s campaign. “It should be one of the gems in the crown of America’s greatest university.”

Einhorn Yafee Prescott principal David Fixler, AIA, is the historic preservation specialist consulting on the project. He calls Mori’s response an “overreaction.” “Preservation is about adapting buildings and managing change. Otherwise, it becomes a museum piece,” he says, adding that Aalto would have disapproved of freezing the room in an historical moment.

With backing from historic preservationists as well as from faculty from Harvard and other institutions, Mori hopes to force a reconsideration of the renovation. The project, which has been underway since June 9, was originally scheduled for completion by September.