Separated At Birth: One Santa Fe & One Western Avenue

One Santa Fe One Western
ONE’S IN the Los Angeles Arts District, the other’s at Harvard Business School. In addition to the 40-ton Swords of Damocles overhead, they share little human scale* and little to even show that humans live there. The critics love both, but they seem to me to epitomize architecture that’s esoteric and out of touch.

The student editors at the Harvard Crimson ran a story called “Snap, Yo’ Momma’s Uglier than One Western Avenue.” The opening line said, “The decades-long debate over whether Mather House or the Leverett House towers holds the dubious distinction of being the ugliest residence on campus may have just been settled once and for all—thanks to the opening of One Western Avenue, Harvard’s newest, and perhaps most hideous, graduate school housing unit.”

Also in the Crimson:

The Boston Herald calls the design “risk-taking.” The Boston Globe calls it “aggressively dull, blocky, and abstract” with nothing to indicate the “joy of human habitation.” The New York Times calls it a “distinctive example of progressive contextualism.” [SAY WHAT?] Anupam Mishra, a second-year HBS student, calls it “the ugliest thing since Canaday.”

In the background of the Western Ave photo, you can see two of the towers at Peabody Terrace, housing for Harvard graduate students designed by Jose Luis Sert, former Dean of the university’s Graduate School of Design. People have called it the ugliest building in Cambridge for years. Twenty years earlier that title was held by the Harvard Graduate Center, designed by the former Chair of the architecture department at the GSD, Walter Gropius.

It’s surprising how badly Harvard and the GSD take care of Harvard’s graduate students, considering how much the university depends on its graduates, who donate about $2 million per day. Former Harvard President Larry Summers reportedly disliked the GSD for many reasons, including the fact that One Western Avenue is so ugly that Harvard couldn’t persuade a donor to put his or her name on the building.

This is not about style, or even the expression of technology and “modern” construction techniques (which are the opposite of “artisanal”). Instead, it’s about esoteric architectural ideology separated by 10 years and 6,000 miles producing “original” but ridiculously similar buildings with little ambition or desire to make places where people want to be.

* Look at the people in the photograph of One Western Avenue. Like ants to the slaughter, they are sitting in a non-place that’s only slightly cozier than the parking lot at a mega-mall. One Santa Fe is a QUARTER MILE LONG—and yes, simple and boring does become more and more boring the more it’s repeated.

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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