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Sever Hall at Harvard University
Sever Hall at Harvard University is an example of "the validity of architecture as generic shelter rather than abstract-expressive sculpture," says prominent Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi.
ARCHITECTURE

Is Harvard hall the best US building?

Venturi extols its simple interior, detailed facade

It's right there in black and white, Page 36: ''Sever Hall at Harvard by H.H. Richardson, which is my favorite building in America."

The words come from a distinguished source. The author is Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi. For almost 40 years, Venturi has been one of this country's most influential thinkers on architecture, as well as a prominent practitioner. The quote is from his portion of a new book written with his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, titled ''Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time."

The quote stopped me in my tracks. Is Sever, a red brick classroom building in Harvard Yard designed in 1878 by the great architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the best building in America? Is there a best building in America?

I call Venturi. He e-mails a message. Here it is:

''I have come to understand the validity of architecture as generic shelter rather than abstract-expressive sculpture, and as flexible loft for accommodating evolving functions . . . And then I love Sever Hall also for its aesthetic tension deriving from its vital details. I could stand and look at it all day. Thank you, H.H. Richardson."

Translated into the vernacular, Venturi is saying he likes buildings with simple shapes and plain interiors, but fancy wrapping on the outside. That way they can accommodate changes of interior function over time without losing their architectural presence. Anyone who heard him in a symposium in Cambridge last spring, when he criticized Frank Gehry's anything-but-plain Stata Center interiors at MIT, will recognize the argument.

I remember arriving at Harvard as a freshman many years ago. Compared with other buildings in the Yard, Sever seemed a bit glum. There are few changes of color or material. Even the mortar is colored to match the masonry. Sever looks, in fact, as if the entire building had been carved out of a single enormous brick.

It's only when you start to look closely that Sever begins to sing. It's a symphony of all the things you can do with brick. There are 60 different shapes of brick, including many carved with intricate detail. But the ornament isn't lavish. It's flat and taut, and always seems to be part of the wall, not something added to it.

Other protrusions are subdued, too. Chimneys, for instance, hardly project upward at all. The effect is to give Sever a powerful sense of being one self-contained thing, not an assemblage of parts. There's much more one can say about it, but the best thing is simply to go look at it. This will be especially true when Harvard completes a planned renovation, to start next year.

Many people admire Sever. Years ago I asked two other noted architects, the Briton James Stirling and the American Robert Stern, to name a favorite building in the Boston area. Both named Sever first. Not everyone agrees, though. Charles Eliot Norton, a noted 19th-century Harvard professor of fine arts, hated Sever.

''Study the system of ornamentation of Sever Hall," he admonished his students. ''It is more than babyish. . . . As yet America has contributed very little to the arts." Scholars today aren't quite sure what he meant.

Venturi's quote got me thinking about the sporting aspect of architecture. Which is the league champion building, anyway? I try that question on a few people.

Mark Simon, a partner in the firm Centerbrook Architects in Connecticut, knows what he thinks. ''The best building in the world," he says, ''is Saynatsalo Town Hall in Finland, by Alvar Aalto." Readers may recognize Aalto as the architect of what is probably MIT's best building, the Baker Hall dorm.

I've visited Saynatsalo twice, and it is indeed wonderful. But its history suggests, too, that Venturi has a point. Aalto's building, so perfectly fitted to its role as a small town hall, has now lost that purpose. The town of Saynatsalo has been incorporated into a larger municipality, the officials have decamped, and the perfect little town hall is in the uneasy situation of nobody knowing quite what to do with it. Maybe a more loftlike, Venturi-esque building would prove more adaptable?

I decide to query the experts on Sever. James O'Gorman, retired Wellesley professor, is the leading living authority on H.H. Richardson. He notes, to my surprise, that Sever didn't cost a lot.

''I think it's a very handsome building," O'Gorman says. ''It was a gift to the college by someone who was dead, so Richardson couldn't con any more money out of him. So it's a fairly low-budget building. I think it's exquisite on the exterior. This is really a study in masterful brickwork. And I think the very tight hip roof above those brick walls produces a very strong and powerful outline."

O'Gorman notes that Richardson had a bigger budget for his Austin Hall at Harvard's law school, a building nobody thinks is as good as Sever. He once wrote that ''Sever was commissioned on a limited budget to be a basic barn of a building." Sounds like Venturi's ''generic shelter."

Is Sever his favorite American building? He laughs. ''I'm very partial to the gate lodge out at North Easton," he says, referring to another Richardson icon. ''But as a historian I can't really make that kind of judgment. I think Fallingwater is fantastic. I think more recently the work of Fay Jones in Arkansas is about the best thing we've produced in a long time."

(Fallingwater is a Frank Lloyd Wright house above a waterfall. Jones, who died this year, is admired for his Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., which the American Institute of Architects voted one of the 10 best American buildings of the 20th century.)

I try another architectural scholar, James Ackerman of Harvard. Is Sever his favorite building? He laughs. ''I think I'd pick something else." He mentions a few -- the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn, Taliesin East by Wright -- then says: ''I grew up looking from the top of the hill onto the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco [by Bernard Maybeck]. I have a great affection for that place."

And Sever?

''I like Sever. It finds a compromise between the brick buildings of the Yard and University Hall by Bulfinch. I love the way the brick's used. And in a functional sense, it was a remarkable invention. It was the first classroom building in America, and it still functions without any considerable innovation or change."

Ackerman refuses, however, to name a favorite. ''I think it's quite a challenge to pick one's favorite building in America. Venturi is prone to hyperbole. Well, why don't we have a contest? Best building in America?"

Any entries, readers?

Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.  

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