I’ve created a photographic tour of the architecture of Boston, Cambridge and various other places in Eastern Massachusetts. You can find it HERE. The buildings are listed in chronological order and I’ve tried to find information about the style, the architect, and renovations, additions, and updates. What I’ve discovered through my research is that a building rarely stays the same for its entire existence – later owners add, subtract, change the style and renovate, rehabilitate, and restore over time.
The photos are mine and were taken with an iPhone 13 Plus. I tried to get interior shots when I could, but this was not always an option.
Your favorite building not on the list? Write to me in the comments, and I’ll go take a look at it! Maybe it will make an updated version of this site.
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.”
Because I’ve been spending so much time on architecture lists these days, I decided to collect some “best buildings” lists for my local environs, specifically Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was shocked to discover that the building on the most “Best Boston Buildings” lists is almost universally reviled by the general public: Boston City Hall. What do the experts see in it that the average person is missing? Or is it a case of the Emperor’s New Architecture?
Also, despite Boston’s reputation for being a city with a lot of history (at least by American standards), there are very few old buildings on the list – and nothing before 1700.
5 Boston City Hall, Boston, MA: Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles (1963-1968) – Brutalist The much-maligned Boston City Hall topped the charts.
4 Massachusetts State House, Boston, MA: Charles Bulfinch (1795-1798); Charles Brigham (1895); Sturgis, Chapman & Andrews (1917) – Federal Paul Revere covered the dome with copper roof after the wood one began to leak. The gold came later.
Trinity Church, Boston, MA: Henry Hobson Richardson (1872-1877) – Romanesque Revival A gem in Copley Square.
Boston Public Library, Boston, MA: McKim, Mead & White (1887-1895) – Renaissance Revival Philip Johnson’s modernist addition didn’t make the cut.
Baker House, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Alvo Aalto (1947-1948) – Modern Baker House is a dormitory for MIT students.
MIT Chapel, Cambridge, MA: Eero Saarinen (1955) – Modern Theodore Roszak’s spire and bell tower were added in 1956.
John Hancock Tower/Hancock Place, Boston, MA: Henry N. Cobb/I. M. Pei & Partners (1968-1976) – Minimalism At first, the windows were falling out, but the problem was fixed eventually.
3 Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA: John Smibert (1740-1742); Charles Bulfinch (1805) – Georgian Faneuil Hall, in a slightly smaller iteration, was the site of many Revolutionary activities.
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard, Cambridge, MA: Le Corbusier (1961-1964) – Modern Harvard’s Carpenter Center is the only Le Corbursier in the United States.
Simmons Hall, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Steven Holl (2002) – Modern Simmons Hall at MIT.
Stata Center, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Frank Gehry (2004) – Modern MIT sued Gehry when the building developed leaks, cracks and mold after heavy winters.
2 Old South Meeting House, Boston, MA: Robert Twelves (1729) – Georgian It was here that the American colonists planned the Boston Tea Party.
King’s Chapel, Boston, MA: Peter Harrison (1749) – Georgian The 18th Century congregation of Kings Chapel mostly opposed independence from Great Britain.
Old City Hall, Boston, MA: G.J.F. Bryant & A.D. Gilman (1862-1865) – Second Empire Known as old City Hall, this building was erected on the site of the first public school in America.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA: Willard T. Sears (1903) – 15th Century Venetian Palazzo. The courtyard of the original museum, which was designed to look like a 15th century Venetian mansion.
Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Eero Saarinen (1950-1955) – Structuralist Modern MIT’s premier performance space bears some resemblance to Saarinen’s famous TWA Terminal.
Holyoke Center, Harvard, Cambridge, MA: Josep Lluis Sert (1965) – Modern Harvard’s Holyoke Center was designed by the-then Dean of the Design School.
Design Research Headquarters, Cambridge, MA: Benjamin Thompson (1969) – Modern Benjamin Thompson designed this building to house his retail store, Design Research, which went bankrupt in the 1978.
Christian Science Plaza, Boston, MA: Araldo Cossutta/I. M. Pei & Associates (1968-1974) – Brutallism I.M. Pei’s design for the Christian Science Church Plaza includes several buildings, fountains and a reflecting pool.
Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston, MA: Benjamin Thompson (1971-1976) The development of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into a tourist-friendly area with shops and restaurants spawned imitators around the U.S.
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA: Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2009) – Modern The new ICA building in South Boston was almost universally lauded by the architectural community.
When I was compiling the “Best Works of Art” lists a few weeks ago, I noticed every once in a while that there would be a building on someone’s list. I was focused on painting and sculpture, so I mostly ignored these references to architecture. Until now.
In some ways, architecture is the crowning achievement of the visual arts, in that it incorporates aspects of painting and sculpture, but within the overall context of designed structure in space, so I decided that architecture needed some lists of its own. As I collected over 20 lists of “Best Buildings” and “Best Architecture”, I found that most of the items on the lists met my common sense notion of architecture: Buildings that people use to live, work, play, worship and learn in. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the scope of architecture went beyond my original conception. The first obvious exception was bridges – you don’t normally go inside them, like buildings – you travel over them. Yet bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate and the Millau Viaduct are some of the most spectacular architectural achievements of the modern era. But the listers also included the Statue of Liberty and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which I thought of as giant sculptures (in fact, the Statue of Liberty is on my paintings and sculptures list). At least those two items meet my first definition because they are hollow and people can go inside them.
So I revised my working definition of architecture to: Man-made structures that people can go inside, underneath or on top of. But I saw an immediate problem: this definition was too broad: it would make roads, patios, empty refrigerator boxes and even cruise ships and automobiles into architecture. Even more perplexing were two items that turned up on multiple “Best Architecture” lists that didn’t seem to fit any reasonable definition I could come up with: the Great Sphinx of Giza and the giant statues (called “moai”) of Easter Island. You can’t go inside them (unlike the nearby pyramids, for example); you can’t go underneath them and, unlike bridges, they are not designed for people to travel over them.
So I turned to my Internet resources. The online Free Dictionary defines architecture, in part, as: (1) The art and science of designing and erecting buildings; (2) Buildings and other large structures. The first definition is problematic because it excludes not only the Sphinx and the Moai, but also bridges, which are not normally thought of as buildings. But the second definition, while simple, seems to do the trick, especially when we recognize that the word ‘structure’ is related to ‘construct’, which implies a controlling mind and would exclude natural arches or rock formations. One hitch: my new working definition of architecture would include large structures made by animals (non-human animals) – giant termite mounds, for example – but that’s a list for another day.
Here they are,, the new “Best Architecture” lists – with lots of pictures: