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MIT names Center for Advanced Urbanism in honor of visionary developer Norman Leventhal

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Alan Leventhal (left) and MIT President L. Rafael Reif sign documents naming MIT's Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) in honor of Norman B. Leventhal '38.
Alan Leventhal (left) and MIT President L. Rafael Reif sign documents naming MIT's Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) in honor of Norman B. Leventhal '38.
Left to right: MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Alan Leventhal, and codirector of the Center for Advanced Urbanism Alan Berger. Berger has been newly appointed to the Muriel and Norman Leventhal Family Foundation Fund professorship.
Left to right: MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Alan Leventhal, and codirector of the Center for Advanced Urbanism Alan Berger. Berger has been newly appointed to the Muriel and Norman Leventhal Family Foundation Fund professorship.
Norman B. Leventhal (right) with MIT President L. Rafael Reif
Norman B. Leventhal (right) with MIT President L. Rafael Reif
Photo: John Gillooly

MIT has named its Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) in honor of Norman B. Leventhal '38, a visionary developer and philanthropist at the center of Boston’s postwar revival. A life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation who died last year, Leventhal was a vital member of the MIT community for three-quarters of a century.

The center was officially named the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism today at a signing ceremony attended by Alan and Sherry Leventhal and other members of Norman Leventhal’s extended family.  

"Norman Leventhal knew that thriving cities don't happen by accident, and through his remarkable leadership in Boston, he showed the world how it was done," said MIT President L. Rafael Reif. "With his brilliant practical problem solving, exceptional vision, and wide-ranging curiosity, Norman was a center for advanced urbanism all by himself! We are deeply grateful that the Leventhal family has memorialized Norman's life and values by naming MIT's Center for Advanced Urbanism in his honor."

Since its inception in 2013, the center has sought to redefine the field of urban design to meet contemporary challenges facing the world's cities. Drawing upon MIT’s deep history in urban design and planning, architecture, and transportation, the CAU coordinates multidisciplinary, multifaceted approaches to advance the understanding of cities and propose new forms and systems for urban communities.

Generous support from the Leventhal family will elevate the center as MIT’s gateway for understanding cities and imagining their future, and establish the CAU as the Institute's hub for research related to large-scale, complex, 21st-century metropolitan environments. With the gift, the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) will also appoint CAU codirector Alan Berger to the existing Muriel and Norman Leventhal Family Foundation Fund professorship; launch a new CAU journal; and initiate the Leventhal Prize to recognize real-world collaboration aimed at solving pressing urban design, architectural, and environmental problems globally.

“Naming the center after Norman Leventhal not only recognizes his leadership in shaping a much better street life and skyline for Boston, but keeps him in front of us as an inspiration for making urban design civic and inclusive,” said Hashim Sarkis, dean of SA+P. “With this gift, the center will become an interdisciplinary platform for all of MIT in addressing the complex societal issues of cities — and the gateway for cities to bring their concerns and aspirations to MIT. We look forward to carrying out this work with the vigor, rigor, and collaborative spirit needed to shape the cities of the future.”

The CAU was established in 2013 under the vision and leadership of Adèle Naudé Santos, former SA+P dean, and with initial funding from Sherry and Alan Leventhal. To date, the center has tackled challenges and embraced opportunities ranging from urban resiliency in Boston to urban storm water wetland design in New York to affordable housing in Latin America.

“The Leventhal gift will expand the reach and capacity of CAU’s unique interdisciplinary way of solving complex urban problems with the world’s best designers and researchers across MIT’s five schools,” said Berger, who is also a professor of landscape architecture and urban design. 

Norman Bernard Leventhal was a driving force behind the construction of many of Boston’s signature buildings and public spaces, including Rowes Wharf, the renovated South Station, the transformation of the former Federal Reserve Bank of Boston into what is now the Langham Hotel and One Post Office Square, and 75 State Street. A native Bostonian, he was a strong advocate for public spaces and amenities for all city residents. An inveterate walker with a keen eye for all angles of urban life, Leventhal conceived of and led the civic effort to build the garage and park at Post Office Square — now the award-winning and internationally recognized Norman B. Leventhal Park.

“We must constantly work to find ways to make the riches of Boston available to all of her citizens, not just the most fortunate among us,” Norman Leventhal told The Boston Globe in 1997.

Leventhal grew up in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester and graduated from the prestigious Boston Latin School at age 15. Though admitted to Harvard University, he chose to attend MIT, where he studied civil engineering while working three jobs. After graduation, he became a naval architect during World War II, and in 1946 cofounded the Beacon Construction Co. (later the Beacon Companies) with his brother, Robert.

Beacon Construction Co. grew significantly in the post-World War II years by tackling an array of projects across the U.S. — from remodeling stores to building post offices and constructing public and military housing as well as thousands of units of affordable housing in the Boston area. The firm’s first large-scale project in Boston, of which Leventhal remained especially proud, was Center Plaza, the long, curving office building in Boston’s Government Center, completed in 1969.

His work on South Station, as part of a public-private partnership, preserved the station’s striking neoclassical facade while successfully rejuvenating the interior as a transit hub, public space, and setting for commerce.   

“My father was passionate about MIT and its mission and particularly grateful for the extraordinary education he received. He knew there was no greater institution that could singularly address the enormity of the world’s challenges than MIT, and he was confident that the Center for Advanced Urbanism could and would be one of the powerful platforms from which to meet those challenges. On behalf of my family, we are humbled by this recognition of my father," said Leventhal’s son, Alan, a member of the MIT Corporation.

Leventhal and his wife, Muriel, saw philanthropy as an integral part of their lives. In addition to MIT, they supported the Boston Public Library, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and a variety of other causes.

Among the couple’s most distinctive gifts was the establishment of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. Leventhal created a book, "Mapping Boston," published in 1999 by the MIT Press, which includes key elements of his unique collection of maps of the city.

Leventhal had strong ties to his alma mater throughout his lifetime. He served as president of the Alumni Association and received the Bronze Beaver Award, the highest award granted by the association for service to the Institute. He was a member of the MIT Corporation from 1975 to 2015, including terms on the Executive and Investment Committees. He served on the Visiting Committees for Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Media Arts and Sciences, and Urban Studies and Planning.

In 1989, Mr. and Mrs. Leventhal established the Muriel and Norman Leventhal Family Foundation Fund to support a professorship in the field of city-building and large-scale urban environments. The Leventhals also helped create the Muriel and Norman B. Leventhal Center for Jewish Life, a resource for MIT’s Jewish community and the campus as a whole.

Mr. Leventhal was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded honorary degrees from Boston University, Brandeis University, and Hebrew College. He was a director emeritus of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, an overseer of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a life member of the Boston Athenaeum, and a trustee of the Museum of Science, Boston.

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