Architecture nob: If you don't like that giant Harvard dorm in Brighton, you're a pinhead

Harry Mattison points us to In Defense of One Western Avenue, an essay by George Thrush, director of Northeastern's School of Architecture. Simply put, Thrush is fed up with the cultural neanderthals who prefer Kenny G to the architectural magnificance that is One Western Avenue. You know: That Harvard dorm off the Charles that looks like it could crush you without a moment's notice:

... My own unscientific polling reveals a shocking level of what might charitably be called reactionary aesthetic conservatism, or worse, a kind of deep cultural pessimism. Among my neighbors in Cambridgeport (just across the river from the building), the negative reaction is near universal. Mind you, these folks are the sort who would never express a negative thought about modern painting or music, or performance art, or any other such evidence of cultural experimentation for fear of being labeled "conservative." But when it comes to architecture, they seem to feel that the stakes are higher; after all, buildings are continuous performances in a way that Philip Glass symphonies or Robert Wilson plays are not. And so the architectural tastes of many of my fellow citizens tend toward the Kenny-G-like stylings of the Genzyme faux-cathedral of biotech adjacent to One Western Avenue ...

How is it possible that in a hotbed of progressivism, the sophisticated work of one of the world’s best firms is rejected completely out-of-hand? By any rational measure, One Western Avenue is a solid piece of urban design, upon which one can easily imagine more new blocks of the new university being modeled. Perhaps what has really happened is that we have allowed our hyperactive political antennae to supersede our aesthetic judgment. The arguments against One Western Avenue, after all, are really echoes of the "we shall not be moved" protests against Peabody Terrace and the perceived arrogance of architecture and institutions against "the people" in the 1960s. ...

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Comments

Well...

By on

One Western Avenue is a solid piece of urban design, upon which one can easily imagine more new blocks of the new university being modeled.

"Blocks" is right. I'm guessing Mr. Thrush believes urban planning in the future will be done entirely by playing Jenga and studying the table once the tower falls.

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Huh?

By Weebs on

What do progressivism and "blue" politics have to do with architecture? This guy is an idiot.

Ugly doesn't have politics.

It's just ugly.

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What do progressivism and "blue" politics have to do with archit

By on

Good question…..
What could “archi-torture” possibly have to do with progressivism and blue politics?

Architecture has often (almost always) been used historically to advance one political/cultural agenda or other. For instance, Jefferson modeled Monticello on Greek architecture, because he felt his new US republican democracy did/should pick-up where ancient Athens left off.

Another example: Albrecht Speer's buildings during the Third Reich. Another example: the Bauhaus, during the Weimar years in Germany. That school had a socialist/utopian polemic that they felt was in unity with their new aesthetic. (Interestingly, when the Bauhaus style was imported to the US by Phillip Johnson, he renamed it the "International Style" and made it the fashion-statement of the establishment. He kept the form, eviscerated the politics, and changed the way we see & think about the built-world.)

Another example: The way post-modernism is often practiced in the US isn't as playfully creative as elsewhere globally: Often in the US po-mo is more like neo-conservatism. They use historical architectural forms to reinforce deeply conservative political messages. (In Europe, American po-mo was at first called "Ronald Regan architecture." A recent example of this is the Spangler Center at Harvard Business School (two buildings away from One Western Ave). It looks exactly like it was built in the early 20th century (architect Robert Stern). The community doesn't object to the values embedded in the Spangler Center's look. (Ugh.)

Only a couple years earlier, the architecture firm that designed One Western Ave had completed a really really wonderful little library for the North Allston community. (It’s called the Honan-Allston Library). I don't know but I assume that part of the reason that the same architect got the One Western Ave job was because people were so delighted with the library.

What went wrong? I don't know that either, but I've heard the claim that a lot of the blame should go to Harvard Planning + Real Estate (HP+RE) for imposing outrageous budget restraints on the job. Wealthy-Harvard decides to save some bucks by having one of their Planners write "design-standards" for housing, in a deeply misguided effort at cost-control. Maybe HP+RE won't make that stupid mistake again. I do think they have NOT paid a big enough price yet for their blunder, but they've certainly taken lots of heat for the building. They’d probably like to prove that they're not number-crunching dweebs who inevitably make decisions that lead to hated buildings. Maybe their future buildings will be better….

And maybe not:

Recently, HP+RE has a new alias: the "Allston Planning Group". Even with the new name, still the same old mediocre group. What a phenomenally lame job HP+RE is doing with a “Master Plan” for Harvard's expansion into Allston! (“Master Plan” – sheesh, the expression always reminds me of “Master Race”.) The lame job is being so well documented by Harry Mattison and others. Lately HP+RE has been also been trying to ram a wildly inappropriate "Art Museum" (read "Art Warehouse") down the throat of the Allston neighborhood. Harry’s blog is the best place to learn about that too.

I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about One Western Ave.

Of course, at first I was appalled, and I'm still stunned that Harvard would make such a blunder. But I live very nearby and see the building all the time, so I'm getting used to it. That does NOT mean I necessarily like it now. An aphorism that I DON’T necessarily agree with (but often feel challenged-by) goes: “People do not test masterpieces. Masterpieces test people.” In other words, new art can challenge us to see anew the way we see our world & ourselves. It can test us: see if we’re flexible enough to have new vision. Now I am definitely NOT saying that One Western Ave is any masterpiece. But, maybe I need fresh-eyes to be able to see some of what’s going on in that building. I believe that if I can have an epiphany or two, and see it with fresh eyes, I’ll have greater insight into WHY it is such a failure of a public icon/building. (Hey, maybe I’ll wind up liking it….improbable.) I don’t know, but think maybe One Western Ave is a “noble failure”. In other words the architect did blow it, but by taking risks and failing at the risks. As opposed to the Spangler Center which takes not-one-risk.

An odd thing is, like so many people in Cambridge & Boston, I am enamored of Frank Gehry’s Stata Center. So, I’m pretty confident that I’m not fundamentally opposed to unusual buildings or anything. The Stata Canter is sooo beautiful, but hardly in old-fashioned ways of describing what “beautiful” is.

Well, actually I’m wrong: there are plenty of classical definitions of Beauty that would apply just fine to the Stata Center. Can anyone Google or Wikipedia a few definitions and share them here?. I wonder if some definitions could be inclusive of the Stata Center but somehow exclude One Western Ave?

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It was better as an elevation drawing.

By on

The only thing I would say doesn't work is the fenestration design in the spandrel overhead.

There's something to be said for simplicity, but if every square inch of the façade elsewhere had to be this-side-of-overdesigned, then those windows in the overhead Vierendeel span are straight out of Motel 6.

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Who are you kidding?

By on

I had a friend from out of town who made us stop the car on Mem Drive so that she could snap a picture. Which print is now entitled "The Ugliest Building in Christendom" (an honor previously held by Mem Hall, IMHO).

That thing on Western Ave is an architectural monstrosity, and justification for parking particle beam generators in orbit. Our only hope is to evacuate the building and blast it from space.

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I don't like One Western

By Matthew on

I don't like One Western Avenue, not because I'm a conservative curmudgeon, but because the building is: big, stodgy blocks that practically scream 1960's academia cutsied up with some half-hearted surface details that are so poorly integrated into the overall scheme that they come off as postmodern afterthoughts. The argument against OWA is that it's a massive, dull building taking up a riverfront lot that deserved a far more daring and elegant solution.

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There is nothing new,

By on

There is nothing new, innovative, or futuristic about One Western Ave. Instead, it's another piece of cliched "ugly 60s blocks" which many of us are already familiar with and revulsed by.

The history of Boston's experiments with "innovative" architecture have been a disaster-- Government Center and the redevelopment of the old West End come to mind as the most egregious examples.

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In defense of ugly private buildings

By on

I'd like to echo the comments that OWA is pure ugly. But the cities of Boston and Cambridge better not react by dictating what the remainder of Harvard's Western Ave buildings should look like.

I don't know if this is what Harry meant but I do think there are a lot of reactionaries here. I'm referring to people who are too afraid of what a private builder might do with their land and want to exercise more aesthetic control over it.

As a result, we end up with massive zoning laws and the suppression of architectural experimentation. I wouldn't call it Communism; some of it makes sense. But I do think people need to chill out. If you don't like the look of a building, f'ing get over it, like the millions of other crappy things beyond our control.

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Form Amok Function?

By on

Some of the ugliest buildings are sometimes some of the most functional. The late great Bldg. 20 at MIT comes to mind, with it's infinitely reconfigurable space inside despite it's temporary war refuse origins.

How does One Western Ave function internally? Does it really work? Or is it like the Portland Building, a Michael Graves Monstrosity that had special paint needs and the windows did not line up with the floors. It's been torn down for a reason.

Speaking of MIT, I wonder if there are any plans yet for the dorm residents of the Space Waffle on Vassar Street to put colored lights in selected windows and construct a moonite?

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I met somebody who lived

I met somebody who lived there last summer and claimed that she couldn't get from her room to the laundry *in the same building* without having to go outside.

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