City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Part of Boston/Cambridge Diary series

Rarely have a I placed weightier inverted commas round a phrase, even one lifted from a tourist guide. For Cambridge, though it is many things, is in no way an analogue of Paris’s Left Bank. Whatever the guide books claim, I don’t recall the Rive Gauche being the site for hulking chemical plants, mundane science park architecture and the low, flat, featureless industrial landscape now familiar to those of us who are Sunday drivers in Grand Theft Auto (an observation ™ by Matt Jones).

GTA-like street patterns, Cambridge

However, Cambridge does at least offer up an edgier, ‘more bohemian feel’ (™ those same guide books) than Boston, particularly if you trek past the sanitised Kendall Square end of town and head towards Central Square and Harvard Square. There, the streets are thankfully full. This was the first point in Boston or Cambridge where I sensed that basic urban feature of ‘a crowd’.

Cambridge is right across the river from Boston – yet has its own distinct identity. Not at all like Buda and Pest sitting astride the Danube to form Budapest. To the airborne observer, they two cities are one, but on the streets, the feel is distinctly different. In fact, I suspect there’s some local rivalry and opposition floating back and forth across the Charles River. Cambridge, down by the river, is heavily industrial – as befits a former industrial giant on a world scale. Now that space is used by spin-offs from MIT and Harvard, the new informational industries at the light engineering end of the spectrum, but also those chemical plants, used and disused. The area is criss-crossed with grassed-over railroad tracks for heavy delivery and low-road architecture aplenty (classic example = MIT’s Building 20). This disabuses any notion of ‘a Left Bank’ as much as anything.

Railroad by warehouse, Cambridge End of the line This is no 'Left Bank' The lowest of Low Road buildings?

Through the interior of Cambridge, Harvard University dominates spatially. An ancient (for America) institution which follows the model of Ivy League and so-called ‘quality universities’ the world over i.e. sun-dappled swards of green turf, dotted with dozing workshy students, surrounded by a central quadrant of elegant and austere administration and humanities buildings, with science and technology shunted outside the fence into 1960s megastructures [more images of Harvard architecture here]. Souvenir Harvard paraphernalia everywhere.

The later model for campus design is MIT’s campus, which is sprawling, heterogenous, without centre and somewhat characterless. I’ve more on the architecture around here, and specifically the new Stata Building, Simmons Hall residential building and Media Lab to follow, as well as Bill Mitchell’s talk on MIT’s campus design which opened the DIS2004 conference. MIT is interesting – but not what I expected. The campus, despite some very interesting buildings new and old, was surprisingly soulless. OK, it was ‘not in season’ but as it was so separated from the rest of the city, the emptiness was exascerbated.

I spoke to a local product designer at a firm of some global repute (who shall both remain nameless), who suggested that very little of any use comes out of MIT. That, in effect, it coasts on reputation and that the heavyweight blue-chips that sponsor and support its operation are effectively investing in, and getting returns on, the cultural capital the brand name provides. This view would be strongly countered by MIT, naturally, and when I spoke to the MIT Media Lab’s Prof. John Maeda, he intimated that MIT has produced many things that it doesn’t try to take the credit for. I’m not sure why they don’t – that would seem counter-productive for a funded/sponsored model of education – and it’s certainly true that they have produced many innovations. In Scott Kirsner’s chapter in A Good City, ‘Innovation City’, he lists “half of all the radar equipment deployed during the war” as well as microwave ovens and much robotics and biotech emanating from MIT or companies spun out of MIT. For a designer working in new media, there is a vast amount of interesting, useful thinking centred on the institution. Similarly, I can’t not mention the fact that one of the greatest books on cities, and especially Boston, Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City [UK|US] came out of a 1959-vintage MIT.

The challenge, from my perspective, is one of MIT’s transparency – to increasingly share and disseminate that thinking, to engage with an intellectual community outside of that institution. Interestingly, the built fabric around MIT didn’t engender a sense of transparency, despite much new building. Not that that necessarily means anything, but there’s little of the notion of a public architecture supporting a theme of transparency, which there is around the BBC at the moment, say.

Given these brief first glances, I ended up concluding that Cambridge is dominated by these two organisations – Harvard and MIT, which essentially inhabit a shared global intellectual space – with some areas of real city sandwiched in between them (the favourably urban Central Square) and around them (I had an enjoyable barbeque in Somerville, albeit organised by engaging and friendly MIT researchers.) Only on a stroll down towards Harvard Bridge and the Charles River did I find some wooden houses and dense little streets, a sense of a residential community unconnected with the universities, except perhaps supplying them with a service-orientated workforce. Allegedly the massive brick disused powerplant (a pocket version of Battersea or Bankside) which glowered over that community is being turned into luxury flats. Sitting on the river, and the steady stream of jogging Harvard Business School students lining its banks, it wasn’t difficult to see who’d be in those flats. A further disconnect between local and global, rather than an integration (Michael Patrick Macdonald has a good chapter on the impact of gentrification in Boston and New York in A Good City).

Powerstation, Cambridge

Cambridge was difficult to get a handle on as a result – wasn’t sure if there was any there, there. Perhaps that’s a condition of a modern city moving through deindustrialisation to the next phase – of its position in shared intellectual global space as much as in local culture. The temptation to engage primarily with the Cambridge which exists in that global cultural space was seductive and overwhelming – lest I forget, the reason I was there was an academic design conference – and I suspect that places Cambridge progressively further forward than its neighbour across the river, to be honest. Wandering around Central Square and Somerville, I also got a sense of a more culturally-diverse, and yes, ethnically-diverse, environment, albeit with none of Boston’s discrete and ordered charms. Perhaps Cambridge’s disorganised, ‘junkier’ fabric is arguably more useful at this point than Boston’s gentility.


3 responses to “Boston/Cambridge Diary: “Cambridge, Boston’s Left Bank””

  1. Modern Kicks Avatar

    Interesting to read your impressions. Somerville, by the way, is not part of Cambridge but a separate city in its own right. They do sort of blend together at certain points, so it’s not surprising that someone might think one is part of the other.


  2. Dan Avatar

    Oops! Sorry. Fixed (a bit). Yeah, they certainly did seem to blur into each other to me.


  3. Nick Lucero Avatar
    Nick Lucero

    Regarding the comments of the “local product designer,” if you go visit the link below, you will see that MIT produces more patents per year than any other private university in the United States. The only organization that consistently outperforms MIT is the University of California system with its total of TEN publicly funded campuses.
    (note: these rankings only reflect 2001-2002, but are quite representative for the past few years)


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