Righting architectural wrongs
As I puzzled over my college decision in April 2010, an interviewer from a smaller, quainter institution than Harvard sent me a detailed message, enumerating the reasons why not to go Crimson. For starters, life on the Charles was just too damned crowded, with eager undergrads swept to the wayside as the University doted on law, business, and medical students. Classes were oversized and understaffed. And if one could believe it, Harvard students were just as deprived outside the classroom—parties were anathema, and there was nary a Gothic steeple to be found.
Unimpressed by the Princeton representative’s hokum and unconcerned about the absence of Gothic towers, I chose Harvard and haven’t regretted it for a moment. Contra Harvard haters, the last five semesters have graced me with generous financial assistance, faculty friendships, one- and three-student classes, and my share of unforgettable college nights.
However, there’s a grain of truth at the heart of the anti-Harvard polemicist’s argument when it comes to the finishing touches. That is to say, as much as I enjoy the elegant neo-Georgian snowfall proceeding outside my window, the University’s lack of attention to good campus grooming will come back into relief when the sun comes out in melting force. While Harvard’s aesthetic charm—rendered in colonial brick, river-spanning bridges, and breezy courtyards—needs no introduction, our beautiful campus is pockmarked with both landscaping mistakes and architectural abominations. As the University gears up for a billion-dollar House renewal campaign, it must seize the opportunity to put things right—for the sake of its students’ happiness and its legacy of good taste.
No matter how much we’ve gotten accustomed to it, the elephant in the room continues to prattle noisily away. Every time we loop around Allston on our way back to school across the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, we’re arrested amidst the bricks and the bell towers: first by Pyongyang-worthy Mather, then the sci-fi clunkiness of the Leverett towers, the cinderblock hell of New Quincy, and finally the titanic brutalism of the block-long Holyoke Center. Venturing farther inland, the pulsing heart of campus is sclerotized with such architectural abortions as Canaday Hall, William James Hall, and the somewhat more defensible Science Center.
Worst of all, however, are the cracked asphalt walkways that menace both our House courtyards and Harvard Yard, the historic center of our campus tradition. No matter the difference a new coat of black shine makes, the administration’s shortsighted fetish for tarmac stands aptly for a university that believes its appeal has transcended aesthetics entirely. With the reintroduction of early action to its admissions policy, Harvard College faces a yield rate of approximately 80 percent—unparalleled among peer institutions—reducing its immediate incentives to dazzle prospective students. The difference is stark: as Winthrop courtyard cracks with neglect, other elite universities lay their walkways with brick, stone, and all manner of pavers in a feverish attempt to upstage Harvard’s incomparable 377-year-old brand. It is a great shame to see Harvard students return from New Haven, Princeton, or Allston in awe of the cumulative effects of superior landscaping and paving: With over $30 billion at our disposal, we can certainly do better.
In the 1930s, the University demonstrated exceptional taste and clarity in deciding to build the upperclassman House system along the lines of Harvard’s pre-existing neo-Georgian tradition. Call it monotonous, but unlike most of the Northeast’s medieval European copycat campuses, it can be said that Harvard has a style of its own—part and parcel of the American tradition, well integrated into its Cambridge surroundings, and puritanically modest in the tradition of its founders.
Attempts to modernize the Harvard aesthetic have categorically failed. Rather unlike the calculated brutalism of Georgetown’s Lauinger Library or the desert minimalism of Yale’s Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges, our mid-century architectural additions continue to feel tentative, their carpeted floors and poured-concrete walls considered only in terms of trade-offs: unmitigated ugliness in exchange for elevators, bigger rooms, and more parties.
As a Winthropian, I’ve been told, I have no right to judge: Critics assail my House for being roach-infested, cramped, and poorly-maintained. Fair, I respond. However, current plans for House renewal seem well positioned to address these problems—while failing to account for the fact that regardless of internal conditions, the Harvard we return to as alumni will remain blighted by the mistakes of a few nihilistic architects of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
If there is anything we’ve learned since, it is that taste is a bounded matter: Styles might very well change over the years, but there exists an objective pale that we ought never to cross. For the sake of Harvard’s durability as an American icon and competitiveness as a contemporary brand, let’s not be afraid to call for an erasure of our campus’ architectural mistakes while we still have a chance. If the administration wants to make a truly worthwhile investment out of House renewal, it would be wise to go all the way: Bring out the wrecking balls, and beautify Harvard.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.