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Making their mark

The Phoenix gets out the red pen and grades 10 local campuses’ most daring experiments in modern architecture
By DAVID EISEN  |  October 23, 2006

Boston University's School of Law, one of our critic's grade A designs
Universities need their ivy-covered red-brick towers and classical stone porticoes to remind students of their roots in the past. Luckily, local campuses are also dotted with more adventurous buildings that try to engage life as it is lived today. Of course, taking chances means, well, taking chances, and these buildings are not all perfect. But at least they make the grade, which can’t be said of all the D’s and F’s that don’t even try.

1. A ramp runs through it
Carpenter Center, Harvard University, 1963. Architect: Le Corbusier. A+
Le Corbusier was the Picasso of architecture — reinventing the language of form and space with an endlessly creative spirit. His sculptural buildings twist and turn, challenging conventional notions of beauty.

Housing Harvard’s visual-arts department, Le Corbusier’s concrete slabs interlock in a rich composition of hovering studios and towering stairs. Curving walls play off of cubic volumes, while strategically located sheets of glass lighten the monolithic masses and create visual connections to the surrounding campus.
The most audacious element is the ramp that rises up from Quincy Street and slices like a scalpel, or perhaps a chain saw, through the heart of the building and lands on the other side of the block. Along the way, artists, artwork, printing presses, and easels are all exposed to view. Rooftop gardens and sheltered terraces connect indoors to out, making trees, sky, and grass feel like they are part of the composition.

2. Too cool
College of Computer Science and Residence Hall, Northeastern University, 2004. Architect: William Rawn & Associates. B+
Universities have tended to follow the worst dictum of modern architectural orthodoxy: that different functions should be housed in different structures rather than combined in mixed-use buildings. Stacking a residential tower over the horizontal sweep of an academic building was a brilliant move for Northeastern and their architect in this thoughtful new complex across from the MFA.

The lower classroom and research levels and upper apartment living rooms are wrapped in glass to articulate the building’s public functions and lighten what could have been an overbearing presence. The back half of the tower is clad in metal panels to give more privacy to the bedrooms inside.
It is all cool and understated, subtle and elegant, a model for the kind of intelligent, contemporary buildings we should be building. A swooping curve at the top of the tower — the only truly dramatic element in the complex — does suggest lost opportunities. A little more exuberance a little closer to the ground could have been a welcome addition to the streetscape.

3. Design as spectator sport
Gund Hall, Harvard University, 1975. Architect: John Andrews. B-
Like the Carpenter Center right down the street, the Harvard Design School is another sculpted block of concrete with a brilliant concept, but without Le Corbusier poetic leaps it becomes something of a one-liner.

The building is an urban-scale grandstand of stepping trays that hold architecture, landscape, and urban-design studios. It is an eye-popping experience to emerge from below into the seemingly endless ateliers. Row after row of desks and dividers inhabit each level beneath a series of stepping roofs and strips of glass that float like clouds overhead. Beneath the elevated levels of the terraced studios are departmental offices, classrooms, and a ground-floor exhibition area and library.

But Gund Hall is all rules and no exceptions; it lacks the quirky details, the artful aberrations, and the expressive power of the Carpenter Center. Its scale makes it bunker-like on the outside and overwhelming on the inside, too impersonal to unite the community it is meant to inspire.

4. Frozen science, melted architecture
Stata Center, MIT, 2003. Architect: Frank Gehry. B-
Architecture is often described as frozen music, but never as frozen science, which may be why the Stata Center is something of a disappointment.

It is a huge building bringing together a series of departments within a collection of animated forms. At Gehry’s symphony hall in Los Angeles, the lilting melodies of a sonata, the movement of the conductor’s baton, or the mingling concertgoers in the lobbies give meaning to his swirling layers of metal and glass. At the Stata they just feel arbitrary and overly aggressive as they push out to the street with sharp corners and odd angles.

The interior is more rewarding, offering winding spaces and spectacular views through the labs and then out to the sky. Unfortunately, science is not a spectator sport. Many researchers feel on display and have papered over the interior glass walls. Gehry is a brilliant innovator of breathtaking ingenuity whose name attracts donor funding. To the equally brilliant scientists doing equally ingenious work in the Strata Center, he may have tried too hard.

5. Earth to MIT
Simmons Hall, MIT, 2002. Architect: Steven Holl. A
It’s not in the course catalog, but social engineering is hot at MIT. The administration hopes to use its new buildings to pull reclusive techies out of their rooms and into social contact.

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Related: Our town, Dated advice, Strippers, cursing, and free music, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Frank Gehry, Harvard University, Le Corbusier,  More more >
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