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Mather Slouching Toward Alphaville

By Martin H. Kaplan

"THERE IS only one art that moves me: architecture." T.E. Hulme said it, and the sentiment points toward an important notion about design. The buildings around us are the significant objects in our landscape, and if a place is depressing-or dazzling, or manicured, or red-it can call up a corresponding emotional reply in us. An architect designs a building, it is constructed, and suddenly a new fact has insinuated itself into our consciousnesses. Few other arts can claim such immediacy of impact, or assault.

Mather House is the future. Stone cold, fluorescent, angular, it juts into our eyes like a stiletto from the next century. Its proportions are so gargantuan that even an unwilling observer is thrown into the role of a tiny mannequin in an architect's scale model. The low-rise section has the sinuousness and personality of a granite python, and the tower rises mute like an Aztec altar. Some people claim that architecture like this requires a new grammar of response; I think instead that Mather House almost demands that we abandon our way of seeing.

Jean Paul Carlhain, a member of the firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott (which has designed, among other buildings, Dunster, Leverett, and Quincy Houses), is the architect of Mather House. I asked him if the angle of the Mather House tower was the one he had chosen-if, in fact, he was aware that the only windows which looked out on Harvard and the Charles were in the bathrooms. "Oh, yes," he said, "I don't believe in the Atlantic City 'I-can-see-the-ocean!' school of windows." He said he felt that the view of Peabody Terrace, The Riverside Press, and The Carter's Ink factory was "more interesting." It was also Carlhain's decision to put students' closets outside of their rooms, to make the bedrooms especially dark-"I see a student's room as a retreat"-and to omit living rooms from most tower suites.

"A courtyard is the center of the House," said Carlhain, and it is hard to disagree. But what poses for courtyard in Mather House is a dead space, a savannah so criss-crossed with mammoth concrete walks that the oddly shaped patches of grass which remain to intrude might well be the gravesites of tired isosceles triangles. The lack of large or central trees was also planned: "I wanted the students to be able to play frisbee."

IT'S IMPORTANT to distinguish the problems of form and function in Mather House. As a collection of masses, the building succeeds admirably. The tower balances with Peabody Terrace, the lowrise balances with Dunster House, and the idea of an interior space gives the whole affair a kind of lumbering cosmic equilibrium. Terra cotta was the original choice for the exterior faces, and the texture which it would have provided might have prevented the tower from looking like a rouged waffle-iron.

But an $8,300,000 dormitory must do more than balance chunks of stone. People live in Mather House. The thoughtfulness of the architect in providing ample wall outlets and tub-showers does not outweigh his most serious error, the absence of living rooms in almost every student tower "suite." People need a sense of turf, a feeling that some familiar piece of space is always waiting to have emotions projected onto it. "If I'm unhappy and just want to get out of my room for a minute," said a senior occupying a tower single, "I leave my room and go look at the elevator door for a while." Shared bathrooms, too, add to the Sigma Chi atmosphere of tower life. "We wanted to encourage a sense of House communality," said Carlhain, explaining the concept of togetherness which led him to abandon the Quincy formula of private baths.

Mather has no artwork, either. Although Carlhain designed some genuinely imaginative art for the House (an enormous clock to fit inside the library's circular staircase, a huge dining hall mural spewing skim milk from trompe l' oeil spouts), all of it was eliminated in the budget trimming which also deprived the student rooms of carpeting and closet doors. Noise pollution, too, is a problem: there is no division between bedrooms in the doubles, and it has been suggested that at Mather, the sound of one hand clapping in the Dining Hall can be heard in the Junior Common Room.

Someone told me that the only way to understand Mather House is to go there tripping. In many ways, that's understandable. Concrete spaces, elephantine rock thrusts, and dazzlingly white panels of light do have a poetics of their own. But something Carlhain said after he spent an evening with melancholy Mather residents indicates that he understands the central problem. "If you build a building and you find that people are unhappy with it, you become unhappy, too . . . So no, no, I'm not happy."

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