Cambridge, Massachusetts (“Our Fair City”, to CarTalk fans) is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and each of these institutions of higher learning is home to two major works of modernist architecture. I took a self-guided tour today of the four buildings (actually one of them consists of multiple buildings) and thought I’d share some photos and info with you.
Harvard University Graduate Center (1949-1950)
Architect: Walter Gropius (Germany/US, 1883-1969) with The Architects’ Collaborative (Jean Bodman-Fletcher, Norman C. Fletcher, John C. Harkness, Sarah Harkness, Robert S. McMillan, Louis A. McMillen, and Benjamin Thompson)
Originally built as the university’s graduate center, the Gropius Complex (as it is sometimes called) consists of eight buildings – seven dormitories and a dining hall/student center – arranged around larger and smaller four-sided courtyards. The dormitories are situated so that no one faces another. The dormitories are now used to house Harvard Law School students. The dining hall (Harkness Commons) can seat up to 1,000 students. All the buildings are four stories or fewer and are constructed of concrete; the exterior walls are made of buff-colored brick or limestone. According to Architectuul.com, “The Harvard Graduate Center is the first modern building on the campus, it was also the first endorsement of the modern style by a major university and was seen in the national and architectural presses as a turning point in the acceptance of the aesthetic in the United States.”
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1961-1963)
Architect: Le Corbusier (Switzerland/France, 1887-1965) with Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente. On-site coordinator: Josep Lluís Sert.
Le Corbusier was a driving force in modern architecture and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard is the only building in the United States that he designed. Le Corbusier was famous for his “five points of architecture”: (1) The building is raised up on reinforced concrete pylons, which allows for free circulation on the ground level, and eliminates dark and damp parts of the house. (2) The sloping roof is replaced by a flat roof terrace, which can be used as a garden, for promenades, sports or a swimming pool. (3) Load-bearing walls are replaced by a steel or reinforced concrete columns, so the interior can be freely designed, and interior walls can put anywhere, or left out entirely. The structure of the building is not visible from the outside. (4) Since the walls do not support the house, ribbon windows can run the entire length of the house, so all rooms can get equal light. (5) Since the building is supported by columns in the interior, the façade can be much lighter and more open, or made entirely of glass. There is no need for lintels or other structure around the windows. The building now houses Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and is the venue for screenings by the Harvard Film Archive. The building was completed in 1963, just two years before Le Corbusier’s death; he was too ill to attend the opening ceremonies and never saw the completed building.
Baker House (1947-1948)
Architect: Alvar Aalto (Finland, 1898-1976)
Finnish architect Alvar Aalto once described his design for Baker House – a six-story MIT dormitory on Memorial Drive in Cambridge – as a mix between a ski lodge and a ship. An aerial view of the building shows its wave shape. The website docomomo-us opined: “Baker House is the first major building to synthesize European Modernism with the regional material vernacular of New England. It is also a pivotal building in architect Alvar Aalto’s career and the most significant of his works in North America.”
Stata Center (2004)
Architect: Frank Gehry (Canada/US, 1929- )
The Stata Center houses classrooms and auditoriums used by MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, the Linquistics Department and the Philosophy Department, as well as other departments and on-campus groups. It is also home to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. Noam Chomsky, Richard Stallman and Tim Berners-Lee are among the academic A-listers with offices there. In a 2004 review of the building, Boston Globe columnist Robert Campbell wrote: “the Stata is always going to look unfinished. It also looks as if it’s about to collapse. Columns tilt at scary angles. Walls teeter, swerve, and collide in random curves and angles. Materials change wherever you look: brick, mirror-surface steel, brushed aluminum, brightly colored paint, corrugated metal. Everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment. That’s the point. The Stata’s appearance is a metaphor for the freedom, daring, and creativity of the research that’s supposed to occur inside it.”
I’ll conclude with a Stata Center self-portrait: