Placed squarely between Widener Library and Boylston Hall is a gray sculpture that looks like some kind of turtle-lion hybrid. It's a Ch'ing Dynasty original, carved before 1821, and donated in 1936 by the Harvard Club of Shanghai.
Most Harvard students who pass the odd sculpture daily wonder about its origins, but never learn the truth. Crimson Key tour guides may mention the lion-turtle (actually a dragon), but tend to concentrate on more mundane tales of John Harvard and the "statue of three lies." The history of Harvard's buildings--the exterior of the Ivory Tower--is all too often lost among the cliches.
An academic atmosphere, especially Harvard's brand of this-university-is-older-than-Creation atmosphere, suggests uniformity and tradition. And according to Bainbridge Bunting'sHarvard: An Architectural HistoryHarvard's buildings remained conservative for many years.
Today's well-defined Harvard housing system manages to accomodate all undergraduates--often by cramming too many students into too little space. But once upon a time, Harvard students, who paid different rates for rooms in the Yard and beyond, were scattered across a less-ordered campus.
Along Mt. Auburn Street, the "Gold Coast" dorms catered to the lifestyles of the children of the rich and famous. Claverly Hall, now annexed housing, and Randolph and Westmorely Halls, which later became part of Adams House, were the late-nineteenth century lap of luxury: spacious rooms, private baths, steam heat.
Back in the early 1900s, traditional red brick first-year dormitories were built along the river. Now, many of those structures are part of Winthrop and Kirkland Houses.
In 1930, President A. Lawrence Lowell opened the first two new dormitories in the House system, which he based on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in England. The original houses--Dunster, Eliot, Kirkland, Lowell--were built specifically to look like the dormitories in Harvard yard. The campus had become more uniform, connected by architecturally unique buildings that blended together well.
In a wave of late twentieth century construction, Harvard's commissioned architects, some of them world famous, decided to abandon red brick and take a few risks. Many students consider the results to be some of the ugliest buildings ever constructed.
New Quincy and Leverett Towers--buildings unlike any Harvard had ever seen--were designed in 1958. Gone were the fireplaces and the decorative wall moldings. Quincy and Leverett launched a new era of cinderblock.
Leverett Towers are topped with rows of white triangular shapes, which some call kites and others insist are golf tees. No one seems to know their purpose--one Leverett House custodian recently suggested they were only for decoration.
"They're 31 years old," Leverett crew chief Millard Klinke said. "Perhaps at that time they looked decent."
Designed in the late 1960s, Currier House represents the Harvard housing most like dorms at any other college. The Quad's most-feared house continued the trend of modern sterility and unattractive surroundings.
Mather House, the riot-proof high rise designed in 1968, is color-coded according to function. Reddish brown means living space, while white indicates public space or structural support. As if that coding wasn't sterile enough, architects designed Mather's inner passages to look suspiciously like a rat maze.
Peabody Terrace, the apartment complex occupied primarily by married students, may well be the most revolting building on the Charles. Designed in 1963, the building litters the riverbank with its 21-story towers and irregular terraces.
Architects have applauded the structure for its use of space between its high and low rises. But Harvard students tend to agree that the only advantage to living in Peabody Terrace is that you don't have to actually like at it.
Harvard's trend of ugly architecture wasn't limited to residences. Many of the newer buildings closer to the Yard reach new levels of decided non-splendor.
Even the Carpenter Center for the Arts, the only building in North America designed by the renowned French architect Le Corbusier, doesn't hold a candle to the pretty buildings of Harvard's past.
According to the Crimson Key Society's Guidebook to Harvard, Le Corbusier sent his plans to the University but did not see the building until construction was completed. When he saw the finished product, he gasped, "My gosh, man, you've built it upside down."
Some describe the Sackler Museum, down Quincy Street from the Carpenter Center, as a glorified Lego set. Its stripes were originally supposed to be pink and green to match the roof tiles of nearby Memorial Hall. But since pink and green bricks weren't structurally sound enough, the University had to settle on its second choices, orange and gray. Harvard planned to build a footbridge across Broadway, connecting the Sackler and the Fogg. But Cambridge residents Protested, saying the bridge would divide the city.
In one of the world's greater understatements, Bunting's architectural book notes that "the Science Center is not entirely satisfactory from a visual standpoint." Designed in 1970, the building was financed largely by Edwin Land of the Polaroid Corporation. Many a Harvard student have peered out a Canaday window, trying to locate the building's flash and shutter.