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ARCHITECTURE

A Robert A.M. Stern building embodies tradition at Harvard Law

Law School building is a bit pompous

Photos By Robert A.M. Stern Architects

The new Harvard Law School building was designed with the goal of creating a student-focused space.

By Robert Campbell Globe Correspondent 

CAMBRIDGE - I can’t remember when I’ve heard so many people trash a new piece of architecture. During the years it was under construction, people kept asking when the Globe was going to write about the overscaled monstrosity that the Harvard Law School was erecting at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Everett Street here. One observer said it looked like Yankee Stadium.

It’s true that during construction, when it blocked the sidewalk and squeezed the street for many months, the building seemed overwhelming. That just proves the rule that it’s best to wait until a work of architecture is finished before you pass judgment. Now that it’s complete, the law school’s latest building, despite its size, fits comfortably onto its site and its street.

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Architecturally, though, the building is a little pompous and a little dull. Maybe that’s the image the law school wants to project.

If so, it picked the right architect. “Stately’’ would probably be his preferred term. Robert A.M. Stern is the dean of the school of architecture at Yale. He was once called, by a New York newspaper, “the Ralph Lauren of architecture.’’ Like Lauren, Stern believes in the virtue of traditional imagery in a modern world. He’s best known locally for his handsome, decade-old, neo-Colonial Spangler Center at Harvard Business School.

The biggest problem in writing about the law school building is that it doesn’t have a useful name. The building is divided into three zones. They’re called Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, and Clinical Wing. But this is one building, not a trio. We’ll just call it Threepeat.

Threepeat is the brainchild of Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court justice who was dean of the law school from 2003 to 2009. Kagan thought students were being treated as second-class citizens. She wanted to make the school more student-centered.

You can see the results in Threepeat. There’s almost nothing for the faculty in its 266,000 square feet. No faculty offices, no faculty lounge, no faculty dining room. But there’s space for 100 student organizations, for 17 student journals, for a pub, a big cafeteria, classrooms and seminar rooms and meeting rooms by the dozen, and social and lounge spaces of every size and shape. There’s underground parking for 698 cars and a rooftop garden at the second level. Total cost was about a quarter of a billion dollars.

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Seen from the exterior, Threepeat rises to five stories, about the height of other buildings along this stretch of Mass. Ave. It’s clad with cream-colored Indiana limestone that’s been given what’s called a shot sawn finish, making it a little rougher than usual. The finish creates some interest, but not much. It’s too subtle to count. The truth is that the closer you get to Threepeat, the less interesting it is. There’s a need for a little close-up richness, some color, some texture, some variety. My own suggestion? Hey, they don’t call it the Ivy League for nothing.

It’s when you get to the two main entryways that the pomposity kicks in. In both cases, you find yourself walking through a huge arch into a porch that feels like a dark cave. It is the only obvious attempt at memorable architectural form. The porches are meant to remind us of the work of the great architect H.H. Richardson in his nearby Austin Hall of 1884. Alas, they’re gloomy and bare, very different from Richardson’s inventive and richly crafted work.

From the point of view of urban design, Threepeat has some virtues. It helps the law school open outward to the community, instead of turning its back to the rest of the world as it always did in the past. Both main entrances are on Mass. Ave., not off some inner academic quad. A branch of the Harvard Coop enlivens one stretch of sidewalk. And the new cafeteria is open to the public. The cafeteria is located in an older building, formerly named Harkness Commons, which opened in 1951 and has now been remodeled to become a wing of Threepeat. It was originally designed by famed modernist architect Walter Gropius as a student center for adjacent dorms.

As for Threepeat’s interior, the goal seems to be to give the students the belief that they’ve already graduated into a corporate law office. These interiors are posh and predictable. There’s lots of oak paneling on monotonous, colorless off-white walls. Floors are sometimes slate, ceilings are sometimes oak, elevators are speedy. It’s lavish and it all works, but there isn’t a hint of invention or surprise. Especially annoying are huge circular overhead lighting fixtures that hover like angry helicopters in many of the spaces. One hopes that the students, who arrive when classes start in January, will mess things up a little.

The best places in the interior are the classrooms. Instead of a professor at a lectern looking out over many rows of adoring or terrified students, the new classrooms are arranged in such a way that most of the students face one another, with plenty of room for a professor to walk out among them. The intent is to encourage a less confrontational, more interactive kind of teaching. One whole wall of each of the major classrooms is glass, filling the room with daylight while successfully sealing off noise from busy Mass. Ave. outside. A friend who’s been at Harvard Law since 1961 says he can’t wait to teach in these spaces.

Even in these superb classrooms, though, the details can lack imagination. Student desktops are trimmed in oak that’s crudely detailed, in a way that reminds you of neo-traditional kitchen cabinets. These desktops are propped up on contemporary black metal posts. The result is to make the classroom feel like a theater set, with stage scenery fastened to a system of dark, semi-visible scaffolding. It’s a problem designers often get into when they try to combine modern technology with a nostalgic look.

This is a building that will work well for its intended purposes. Students will surely love it. It’s blandly handsome in its stiff-shirted, slightly overfed way. It fills a site of which the previous major occupant was a hideous parking garage. It offers the Coop and the cafeteria to the neighborhood. It’s a good building.

It’s just that neither inside nor out is there much sense of play, of surprise or adventure. Those qualities are part of a good university education, and there’s no reason they can’t be part of a good university building.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.