"We Never Thought Bare Concrete Would Be Enjoyable To Look At"

Living in Mather House often feels like being the butt of a joke, and one that ceased to be amusing

Living in Mather House often feels like being the butt of a joke, and one that ceased to be amusing a long time ago at that. But at a Mather Senior Common Room event on Monday night, Jean Paul Carlhian, architect of Mather House (and also New Quincy and Leverett Towers), offered his rebuttal: Mather, it turns out, was intended to be a concrete monstrosity—sort of.

Harvard itself, he said, is the main perpetrator of this crime so many students call home: The land allocated to create Mather wasn’t large enough to build an entirely low-rise building (which would have been brick) and still accommodate the designated number of students, so Carlhian had to design a high-rise. For structural and aesthetic reasons, Carlhian explained, it made no sense to design a 14-story high-rise of brick—thus the concrete-aggregate form and revolution in Harvard dormitory housing. The interiors were purposefully designed as bare concrete: ever-changing blank canvases upon which, in the suites, the students could express their tasteful creativity (Carlhian said he envisioned “tapestries”). In the public areas, various fine arts would be exhibited, including a giant painting of camels in the dining area and a statue of a lion in the courtyard. Harvard, however, pulled out of its commitment to loan Mather the fine art. The rest is naked history.

The mostly-Mather audience listened obediently to Carlhian’s extensive and entertaining justification of his own design features. “There is a reason for everything,” he said. Carlhian revealed that the chairs in the dining hall had to be both large enough for heavy football players and unbreakable so as to withstand tipping over when the “clumsy guys” stood up—a test of sturdiness that the architect demonstrated for his audience. In the suites, bathrooms were placed so that “a man should be able to entertain a lady friend so that his roommate can run naked to the bathroom without offending her.” During the relatively tame question-and-answer session, one brave soul asked the question on everyone’s mind: Just what are those holes riddling Mather’s interior walls? Apparently, when the pre-fab concrete panels were poured, they were held together by rods so as to ensure their even production; the holes are where the rods once were. Who’s says there’s not symbolism in every beautiful Mather crevice? Perhaps the denizens of New Quincy and Leverett Towers, about which Carlhian cracked, “Those, incidentally, are not towers—they’re just stupid slabs.”