Looks Can Be Deceiving

Harvard’s buildings may lack Yale’s gothic flair, but they do reflect its unique identity

When I first visited Harvard, I thought the Science Center was ugly, and the buildings in the Yard all looked the same. Having just beheld sculptured gothic at Yale and Princeton, I was left wondering why Harvard’s functional architecture didn’t impress as much as its peer institutions’. But I see now that the less grandiose aesthetic of this campus is not a failure of imagination but an authentic chronicle of its long past and an integral part of the college’s unique character.

When I chose to come to Harvard, I tried to convince myself that the Puritan façades would hardly affect my undergraduate experience and to focus on academics. But I couldn’t stop thinking about architecture. The visual nature of one’s surroundings exercises a great deal of influence upon one’s life, which is why someone who can’t swim will pay millions of dollars to see the ocean out the window every morning. If anything, architecture is a better reason to pick a school than its name, which is probably why a lot of people chose Harvard.

But once I arrived, I came to understand that Harvard’s pronounced lack of “collegiate gothic” architecture is far from a liability. Reverend Peter Gomes pointed out during my Freshman Week that Harvard’s river Houses and many of its classrooms, which emulate the Georgian architecture of its oldest buildings, seem not drab but elegant, because they are built in a style adherent to our institutional history and tradition, not an appropriated European model. And in the Yard where the first glance meets monotony, a close look reveals that the buildings have vastly different architectural styles.

The unifying theme of the undergraduate buildings, of course, is that historical redbrick pattern epitomized by the façade of Mass. Hall. Memorial Church’s gleaming spire rests on bricks ,and Widener has them tucked between its Corinthian columns; even Memorial Hall, which Gomes singled out as the one incongruously gothic building around the yard, is really more of a shotgun wedding between the Georgian standard and an imposing gothic cathedral.

Of course, there are obvious signs of rebellion against the redbrick regime, such as some of the modernist housing built in the last half century (Mather, the Leverett Towers, and New Quincy) and, most markedly, the Science Center, but these reflect Harvard’s history, too: the Science Center was designed by a former dean of the Design School who also designed Holyoke Center. Even these concrete behemoths are products of the University’s cultural transformation itself, not attempts at mimicry.

Though most of our buildings lack the lavish uniformity of Yale or Princeton, the loose unity of the Harvard aesthetic is testament to our lack of pretension and honest relationship with its own history. In a way, the architecture of Harvard is an extension of its traditional attitude that its achievements should speak for themselves. (I don’t mean to pick on our Ivy League neighbors: Boston College, the University of Chicago, and Duke, to name a few, regularly advertise their flashy “gothic” campus in admissions materials despite having come into existence some considerable time after the Middle Ages.)

Most of all, I came to appreciate the sense of ownership Harvard has over its sensible New England architecture that schools modeled after foreign designs can’t claim. Though the style may be utilitarian and moderate, it certainly is unique among other American colleges. Duke looks like Princeton, which looks like Yale, which looks like Oxford, but Harvard just looks like Harvard. That unique, redbrick identity is more precious than any sculpted New Haven bell tower.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.