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The Top Five Ugliest Buildings at Harvard

Peabody Terrace was designed by Josep Lluís Sert in 1964.
Peabody Terrace was designed by Josep Lluís Sert in 1964.
By Roberto C. Quesada, Crimson Staff Writer

Since its founding in 1636, Harvard has lived through various artistic movements. This is reflected in the university’s diverse architecture, which spans centuries. While Harvard has some of the most beautiful buildings in the Boston area, it also is home to some of the most repugnant. This two-part series will take a look at the best and worst that Harvard has given to the architectural world, starting with the ugliest.

5. Smith Campus Center by Josep Lluís Sert

Year Opened: 1966

Smith Campus Center was completed in 1966 by Josep Lluís Sert.
Smith Campus Center was completed in 1966 by Josep Lluís Sert. By Courtesy of Roberto C. Quesada

Completed in 1966 under the original title of Holyoke Center, the Smith Campus Center is hard to ignore. The building’s lofty ceilings make it stand out among the three-to-five story structures surrounding the Harvard Square T station. To be fair, the Smith Center has some admirable qualities. For instance, it has a green wall that furnishes the lobby with an environmentalist touch. It also provides a beautiful view from the top floor which the Crimson once labeled “the one place in Cambridge from which you can’t see the [Smith] Center.” Unfortunately, that is where the beauty ends. Designed in the brutalist style, the Smith Center is characterized by harsh exposed concrete which leaves a mark on its visitors. This exposed concrete design also hurts the building’s aesthetics. It has weathered poorly, with many stains visible from the outside. While the other buildings in Harvard Square and surrounding the Yard are made with red brick and blend together seamlessly to create a colonial look, the Smith Center is built as if to completely contrast these conventions. While this type of uniqueness can be satisfying for an architect wanting to feel special, it comes at the cost of everyone else who has to look at this building.

4. Canaday Hall by Ezra Ehrenkrantz

Year Opened: 1974

Canaday Hall was built in 1974 and is the newest dormitory in Harvard Yard.
Canaday Hall was built in 1974 and is the newest dormitory in Harvard Yard. By Courtesy of Roberto C. Quesada

In fourth place comes the freshman dorm that might have a larger rodent population than it has students: Canaday. Built in 1974, it is the newest dormitory in Harvard Yard. While one might expect the newest dorm to come with beautiful amenities, the story is quite the opposite at Canaday.

It is clear the architect made some attempts to beautify the building. For example, it has red walls made of brick that serve to partially mask the brutalist look. Additional design elements of the building include large blocky walls with little ornamentation or decoration. This was intentional, as the building was made to be resistant to protest and dissent. This means that Canaday is not only literally ugly, but also ugly in that it reflects an anti-protest style of architecture that goes against free speech ideals. A better way of making this dorm may have been to adopt the revivalist technique Yale University used to build Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges. This technique allowed the buildings to have modern amenities on the inside, like temperature control, while maintaining an iconic look on the outside that matches the surrounding campus, rather than sticking out like a sore thumb.

3. Carpenter Center by Le Corbusier

Year Opened: 1963

The Carpenter Center was designed in 1963 by architect Le Corbusier.
The Carpenter Center was designed in 1963 by architect Le Corbusier. By Courtesy of Roberto C. Quesada

In third place is the building that is, thankfully, the only building by architect Le Corbusier in North America. For context, Le Corbusier is the architect that wanted to destroy Paris to build brutalist high rises in its place. He also inspired Robert Moses, an urban planner whose projects evicted Black and Brown people from their homes to build highways. It is no wonder then that Le Corbusier follows this alienating design language in the Carpenter Center, with imposing concrete walls that are plain and poorly weathered, especially on the ramp that is too steep for most wheelchairs. The plaza around the building is also plain, with little greenery or ornamentation to attempt a pleasing or human-oriented design. While the building cannot be changed easily as it is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is fairly short and can’t be seen from more than a few blocks away. This keeps the ugliness well hidden, unlike some of the buildings further down this list.

2. Mather House by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbot

Year Opened: 1970

Mather House, built in 1970, is one of twelve upperclassmen dormitories.
Mather House, built in 1970, is one of twelve upperclassmen dormitories. By Courtesy of Roberto C. Quesada

Second on the list is a building that is so ugly that Harvard allegedly crops its website images to pretend it doesn’t exist: Mather House. Built in 1970, the building is a rectangular prism made of straight concrete, with no cladding or paint to disguise it. The dormitories are outlined by burnt-orange colored boxes that hold the windows. The building’s height means it can be seen from across the campus. A better version of this building could be one inspired by the DoubleTree hotel across the river. While this structure is also tall, it at least makes an effort to have some ornamentation such as a gabled roof and red exterior to fit in with the atmosphere of the campus. While the execution of the ornamentation is questionable, with an appearance that seems to mimic a high rise McMansion, the design is still better than Mather House.

1. Peabody Terrace by Josep Lluís Sert

Year Opened: 1964

Peabody Terrace was designed by Josep Lluís Sert in 1964.
Peabody Terrace was designed by Josep Lluís Sert in 1964. By Courtesy of Roberto C. Quesada

If you thought Mather House was the ugliest that Harvard could contribute, you would be incorrect. If you walk down the Charles River, you will find Peabody Terrace — the number one building complex on this list. Not only is this building ugly, but there are three of them! Designed by the same architect as the Smith Center, the structures are among the tallest on Harvard’s campus, which means their unattractiveness can be seen from all over Cambridge and Boston. Built in 1964 to primarily house graduate students, Peabody Terrace has been described by architect Robert Campbell as “beloved by architects and disliked by almost everyone else.” The design, which features large concrete walls and strange rectangular balconies, was meant to combine Mediterranean and Northern European influences, but fails to replicate either. Rather, it reflects a cold, alienating style more reflective of a predatory corporation or an authoritarian government.

A better version of this type of dormitory would be the Student Village at Boston University, which is essentially a modern condominium building for students. Its open windows and more modest approach to materials such as concrete create a more pleasing environment for students. Thankfully for Peabody Terrace, it is not the ugliest building in the Boston area because Boston City Hall exists.

Overall, the 1960s and 1970s were truly a “flop era” in Harvard architectural history. With brutalist architects each providing their own unique takes on the future of buildings, they created some of the most unique, intriguing, yet also unappealing structures on Harvard’s campus. Thankfully, the top five most beautiful buildings on Harvard’s campus make up a much more diverse range of architectural styles, from the 1800s to 2020.

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