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Incinerator Gothic

Circling the Square

By Russell B. Roberts

A few years ago, when most of the country's little children were learning a jingle about Christopher Columbus, the schools in Cambridge were teaching that:

"In sixteen hundred, thirty-six, Harvard College was built of bricks."

It won't be long now before a few extra lines will be added to that couplet:

By nineteen hundred, eighty-four, Those bricks of red were seen no more. With Jose Luis Sert's ascent, They changed the bricks to cold cement.

Holyoke Center, still growing, is creeping determinedly in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue, squashing Holyoke House and Dudley Hall as it goes. Down beyond Dunster House will soon rise the married students housing complex, twice as high as too-tall Leverett Towers. These are the halls that the Dean of the School of Design built: ugly, menacing, stark, and big.

The primary features of these buildings will be primary colors, loudly splashed from floor to floor and interspersed with raw concrete. They leap nervously into the air in their naked ugliness and cover great spaces of ground, obscuring every neighboring building. Only a squinting eye could fail to spot the more hideous elements of Holyoke Center; the other Sertrousity will be worse.

But Sert is not the only architect who mutiliates Harvard property. Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott's Leverett Towers have occupied University land for a long while; Yamasaki's Engineering Sciences Building, a gleaming white, washer-dryer-like edifice, will soon open on Oxford Street; and an almost windowless, brick Medieval turret, the work of a firm from Houston, Texas, will eventually stand on Appian Way.

One Memorial Hall was more than enough--Harvard's drive to amass a whole collection of them ought to be halted before it's too late. The University now seems likely to acquire the Bennett Street MTA yards and the threat of an orange-topped How-ard Johnson's being erected in our midst has been averted. What will rise in its stead, however, no prudent man can say. Seeing the practical jokes University architects have perpetrated in relatively cramped spaces, there is no way of imagining what they will do with twelve acres. Clearly, something must be done about Harvard's official artistic tastes before this construction begins.

There have been handsome, sensible, highly original buildings erected here in recent years, but they are far too few in number. Perhaps this trouble would be eliminated if the Corporation appointed an Architectural Commission, including those who will live in and use the new buildings as well as experts in design and engineering, to conduct open competitions for the selection of architects and plans. This may not be the easiest way to find good buildings but it is certainly less haphazard than the technique used now. In any event, the administration should give some serious new thought to the physical estate it is presently creating.

Had the architects who are currently building for the University been commissioned to design the Parthenon, western civilization would have been slowed by a good three centuries. As it is, they are abetting the decline of our own little civilization in Cambridge.

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