It’s warm. And we have emerged from hibernation. As soon as the weather becomes nice, students (with the exception of thesis writers) turn into quaint, springtime caricatures of themselves. Looking to cohere with our sunlit surroundings, we turn out in our floral dresses, we throw around some frisbees, we make dandelion chains and spread our blankets in the grass. Harvard students reading Habermas on the Quad? Oh, how picturesque!
With that same sentiment, a friend and I took a walk down the river this weekend. We slowed down at One Western Avenue, a massive, knotted, brick-and-concrete complex of graduate apartments, which looms above the water like some relic from 1960s urban renewal (its designers were Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, both rock stars at our Graduate School of Design). It’s not as well-known as the Science Center or Mather House, but those who have seen it often claim it’s the ugliest building on campus.
We sat on the wooden benches under the artificial, half-hearted stalactites of its horizontal bar — and I decided it wasn’t so bad. With its brick accents and sprawling courtyard, One Western Avenue is like a modern throwback to the older River houses. Its windows form clean lines, and the horizontal block fitted into its two towers reminds me of traditional Japanese building, which never used nails, but instead constructed entire houses like wooden puzzles.
My friend was a bit more critical. He liked the Bermuda grass, but little else. Granted, he also hates the Science Center, and if he had his druthers, the entire campus would be mired in Georgian architecture. A shameless historicist, he maintained that effective, beautiful design is vindicated with time — and that it’s fine to build Classical or Neo-Gothic, even in our era, because the endurance of these styles are a testament to how much we like them, and how well they work (this led us to consider the cyclical nature of aesthetics, and of historical trends in general — more in next post).
In practice, I’m inclined to agree with him. I like the red-brick feel to our campus. Plus, historicism has made for some beautiful cities. When Vienna’s Ringstrasse was constructed in the 1800s, architects looked to the past for inspiration — so the Parliament had its classical columns, the townhall its Gothic eaves, and the theater its rococo flourishes. And it worked. It still works. The result is coherent and makes aesthetic sense. But at the same time, borrowing from our architectural past feels like cowardice — we’re too afraid to take risks — and falsehood. If we built Allston in red brick, would we still be true to our times?
I think we could be, as long as we designed with students’ need — modern students’ needs — in mind. We don’t need to throw out whatever works, just because it belongs to another era, but we should allow function — which changes with time — to guide form — which also changes, but doesn’t need to. And we should be careful with our experiments. If I could choose, I’d rather that our new campus take a different direction from One Western Avenue.