Every year, after the pilgrimage of Harvard students to New Haven, it becomes the fashion for art critics to spring up in the most unsuspected quarters to disparage Harvard's architectural potpourri. The touchstone by which Harvard buildings are tested is always the same, and results never vary.
"Did you see Harkness Tower and the Quadrangle?" gasps a freshman fresh from Cactus Plant, Arizona. "That's something like a college!" The critic is assertive and confident in his judgment. He has often heard the Yard spoken of as a salad of monstrosities, and just as often has heard Harkness Tower praised as the finest college building in America.
But what will become of the amateur critic and his criticism when he learns that the criterion of his artistic judgment has been attacked upon very sound grounds? Professor Alfred E. Zimmern the noted English educator, condemns Harkness for its "imitativeness of Europe" and grows eloquent over the Bush Terminal Building because it represents "a real piece of the American mind." The word "piece" is important, since it leaves one to believe there are other pieces.
Just as the skyscraper has grown out of America's industrial and commercial greatness, so, in time, will there develope a style in college architecture to represent America's cultural ideal. What this style will be, time will determine. If it is to be truly representative of America, it must be a pure American expression, without suggestion of European models.
Harvard buildings have this merit, if no other, that they remind the observer of nothing else under the sun. Collectively, they are a menagerie of architectural oddities; individually, certain of them possess singular beauty and proportion. University Hall especially is often cited for its purity and simplicity.
Harvard men will never have done deploring the lack of a planning board at the time Matthews and Weld Halls, and more recently Widener Library, were introduced like grotesque, exotic plants in a prim and hardy New England garden. Such a board has since come into being, and has already justified itself in the Freshman Halls and the new Yard buildings now under construction.
Though it will take a long time, most of the old monstrosities will eventually be replaced by new buildings in harmony with the spirit of the whole. In view of this, Harvard need not how even before majestic Harkness. The colonial style to which Harvard is reverting is the nearest approach to a cultural architecture that America has vet produced.