The recent uproar over Harvard's graduate student dormitory at One Western Avenue in Allston following its defense by George Thrush, director of the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, reminds one that harsh criticism of architecture, and of Harvard's architecture in particular, is nothing new. [Update: Professor Thrush has sent me the full-color illustrated article Download OneWestern.pdf (3635.3K)] I'll have more on One Western Avenue soon, but I have some historic criticism to offer now. George Cleveland, writing in the North American Review in 1836, had the following to say American architecture, and Harvard in particular:
"Wherever it had been found necessary to erect large secular edifices, they have either been entirely destitute of ornament, and belonging to no order of architecture, or slightly adorned with Grecian cornices and pilasters. Instances of this architecture appear all over the country; but we do not recollect any that are more illustrative of what we mean, than most of the College buildings at Cambridge, New England. We would cite these as very perfect specimens of no known order of architecture; vast brick barns, destitute alike of symmetry, ornament, and taste; and with all their plain and uncouth proportions, there is a sort of horrible regularity and squareness about them , which heightens their deformity. Four of these edicfces are guiltless of any attempt at elegance of architecture, and, making no pretensions. perhaps hardly deserve to be noticed. But what shall we say of the stone edifice, which insults us with its long piazza, and its wooden Ionic pilasters, and the entablature which extends part way across the front? The proportions of this wonderful building are about one hundred feet by forty or fifty; at the ends, it is three stories high, with basement rooms; the sides are partly two stories and partly three stories high, the great expanse of wall being somewhat relieved by the pilasters and entablature. The chef d'oeuvre of the whole building, however, is the piazza or portico, which runs along part of the western side or front. it is approached by a lofty flight of stone steps guarded by an iron balustrade; nine columns, from twelve to fifteen feet high, each a single block of granite, and surmounted by a Tuscan capital of soap-stone, are ranged along the front of the piazza, and support a flat roof eight inches thick, and so light and insignificant that is seems as if a breath of wind would blow it away. We doubt whether the world contains any other architectural abortion, to be compared to this."
But what really caught my eye in the statement above was this: "We would cite these as very perfect specimens of no known order of architecture; vast brick barns, destitute alike of symmetry, ornament, and taste; and with all their plain and uncouth proportions, there is a sort of horrible regularity and squareness about them , which heightens their deformity." It's as if those who criticize One Western Avenue today are channeling George Cleveland. Is One Western Avenue really that bad?