Dcan Sert's Buildings

One Man's Venom

Over the past year the CRIMSON has waged an unflagging campaign against Jose Luis Sert, Dean of the Faculty of Design, and his buildings in Cambridge. For the most part, the paper's attacks have used vicious ridicule. Last August, for example, the Harvard Summer News (the CRIMSON's summer alias) printed a picture of the Married Students Housing Center with the caption, "University Moves to Thwart Early Marriages."

Probably because of their flippancy, the CRIMSON's criticisms have not been taken seriously. One still hears grumbling about "that monstrosity on Mt. Auburn Street" and an occasional nasty joke ("The one nice feature about Holyoke Center is that it's the one place in Cambridge from which you can't see Holyoke Center"), but the community in general seems remarkably complacent about the Sert buildings going up around it.

Dean Sert's disciples are quick to point out that CRIMSON editors have no business calling Holyoke Center ugly because they are not architectural critics. But if I accept this argument, I cannot protest anything foisted upon me. Although I may have no business criticizing Holyoke Center, I have to look at it every day and live with it. An unattractive building, unlike an unattractive painting, disfigures more than someone's living room: it is in the public esthetic domain. Had Dean Sert built his building in his back yard away from civilization, I would keep silent. He built it, however, on Mt. Auburn Street, which I cross several times a day, and I loathe it.

Holyoke Center's massive concrete face is in jarring contrast with all of the structures around it. Seen from Storrow Drive, it dominates the Harvard skyline; from the yard it is a towering eyesore. (Harvard, of course, has constructed dozens of eyesores, but none before were visible from all over Cambridge.) Presumably, Holyoke Center was planned as bridge between the Houses and the Yard, but being wholly out of proportion with proportion with everything around it, it simply breaks whatever continuity existed before.

The cluttered block between Mt. Auburn Street and Massachusetts Avenue needed something spacious and airy; Holyoke Center, with its jumble of panels and colors, simply adds more clutter. The Center's utility core, projecting as it does much too far above the roof, gives the building an overall unbalanced appearance. And I will not be told to wait until Phase 1-B is finished: twice as much of a bad thing can only be twice as bad.


I am not against avant-garde design in itself. Rather, I object to architecture that tries to cloak its sleaziness under something called "functional honesty." Architectural critics will tell me that Holyoke Center has nothing artificial about it, that it does not try to hide its functional aspects (like the unsightly utility core, which, God knows, ought to be hidden). "Functional honesty" seems to me a marvelously clever way of passing off cheapness and embarrassing people into acceptance of unfinished concrete exteriors. Hans Christian Andersen's emperor, after all, was dressed in a most functionally honest way.

What Dean Sert has done to Mt. Auburn Street does not represent a random lapse of good sense. Dean Sert has done the same thing, only worse and in more colors, to Boston University with his Student Union building. The Married Students Housing Center looks to me well on the way to being just as hideous. Those of us who shudder whenever we see Holyoke Center looming up beyond Grays Hall can only hope that the administrators who choose designs for future Harvard buildings will prevent Dean Sert from doing any more damage to the University and its environs.