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Harvard housing complex lacks the sharpness of its site

How can the same architects produce, within a year of one another and a mile or two apart, one of the best-loved and one of the most deeply hated buildings in Boston?

The love object is the Allston branch of the Boston Public Library, winner of this year's Parker Medal from the Boston Society of Architects as the most beautiful building of the year and recipient of a rare national honor award from the American Institute of Architects.

The hate object -- is that an idiom? -- is One Western Avenue, a complex of 235 apartments for Harvard graduate students, faculty and staff, also in Allston, on a choice site along the bank of the Charles River near the Harvard Business School.

The architects of both are Machado and Silvetti of Boston. Jorge Silvetti stepped down last year as chairman of the department of architecture at the Harvard Design School.

One Western, already occupied, opens officially this week. In 30 years of writing about architecture, I've never heard so many expressions of outrage over a new building. The anguish arrives from all angles: from the general public, and from the community of architects.

Are the critics right? Before we get into that, we'd better describe the building.

One Western is basically a courtyard wrapped on three sides by low brick buildings. On the fourth side, the courtyard is open to the river at ground level, but overhead it's spanned by a long three-story wing, which floats like a bridge over your head. Beneath the bridge, there's a big patio paved in wood -- "a front porch," say the architects -- with wood benches. The bridge wing functions as the roof of this porch. A wide grassy lawn separates the porch from the river. At one corner, near the water, the complex rises to a 15-story tower. Underneath everything, entirely invisible, is a garage for more than 600 cars.

Taken as a whole, One Western looks like something a kid would make out of blocks. And indeed, when you visit the architects' office, they show you a table full of models of exactly that: wood blocks arranged and rearranged in different configurations, as the architects sought the best way to pack 365 tenants onto the small site. The building's wings look like blocks because they're simple rectangular solids, without projections or balconies.

The best of One Western, no question, is the courtyard, and this is what the drive-by viewer doesn't see. Standing here and looking out at the river, your view is framed by that astonishing long bridge wing overhead. The underside of the bridge is finished in a cloud-like pattern of pale panels that makes it look like the underside of the sky. Across the river, the three slim towers of Peabody Terrace, a Harvard housing cluster of the 1960s, seem to beckon sociably. Quads and towers are a theme of the Charles, starting with Harvard's river houses, and One Western, like Peabody Terrace, seeks to continue it.

This sensational courtyard is a unique experience. I know of no other courtyard in which one side is bridged to frame the view in this way. The architects, wisely, have placed the major public entrance to the whole complex in such a position that you come directly into the courtyard beneath the bridge. Two modest worries: Will Harvard keep that entrance open to the public? (Let's hope so.) And what will a wood-floored outdoor porch feel like in February?

The courtyard and its view are the good news. Not so good is everything else.

Some aspects of One Western are hard to figure. The top of the 15-story tower, for instance, appears to have been sliced off with a knife. The windows simply go all the way to the top. These upper windows are fakes, because the top three floors are, in fact, unoccupied mechanical space. You'd think the sliced-off look must be a joke by the architects, a kind of protest against the fact that neighborhood pressure forced the tower to be cut down by three floors. But they deny any attempt to be funny.

Also weird is the jig-jogging of the windows, which stagger drunkenly over the surface of the tower. Showing me around, architect Rodolfo Machado said the window positions were responses to differences in the apartment layouts inside. But in fact all the floors are the same. Later he acknowledged he wanted the walls to look "jazzy and messy," perhaps to suggest some individuality among the inhabitants. But surely the staggered windows are nothing more than an attempt to enliven the boredom of the flat surface of the building.

And that brings us to the major issue, architecturally, of One Western. All surfaces are flat. This architecture is a symphony in the key of flat.

To be sure, everything imaginable is done to enliven the flatness. The walls are made of several different colors of brick -- clay brick or concrete brick -- and the bricks are arranged in elaborate patterns. It's a game. Where one block-like wing intersects another, the two different patterns merge into a third pattern. Sometimes rows of bricks, or individual bricks, stick forward from the others. In the long bridge, the concrete bricks are arranged in a manner that makes the wall look like veined marble, an attempt by the architects to make it look like one huge, solid block spanning the great distance.

The sad fact is that all this ingenuity ends up looking like wallpaper. Interesting wallpaper sometimes, but wallpaper. The architects started by deciding that everything should be flat, then went bananas trying to make flatness interesting. One Western looks like the work of an exterior decorator who's been hanging pattern samples on the sides of the buildings. Or, with its simple box-like shapes, it resembles a pile of cartons sheathed in textile-printed wrapping paper.

There are other problems. The windows, made of aluminum, look cheap and thin. They're not set into the wall but are usually flush with the surface, without any noticeable frames, sills, or heads. Each is thus one more flat rectangle in the flat patterning that is the architecture.

Indoors, One Western is a conventional apartment building with units of several sizes opening off both sides of a corridor. The apartments seem OK, with one exception. There's so little counter space in the kitchens that when tenants add a dish-drying rack and a microwave, there won't be room for much else. Queried on this, a representative of Harvard said grad students don't cook much anyway. Problem solved.

People dislike the complex for a lot of reasons. One, it appears to lack genuine materials or craftsmanship. At One Western, even the bricks don't look like bricks because of the way they're patterned into larger abstract surfaces. The Allston library, by contrast, is rich with slate and other materials.

Two, it appears to lack a human scale. Nothing about these endlessly repeated punch-card aluminum windows suggests the presence of a person behind them looking out. By contrast, Peabody Terrace across the river, with its lively colors and balconies, looks positively domestic.

Third, and this is the toughest one, One Western lacks a recognizable visual language of architecture. In that connection, it's interesting to look across the river to the power station on the Cambridge bank. Here, too, the bricks have been arbitrarily arranged. But they've been arranged to tell a story about the building's construction. They form arches, panels, and pilasters. The story is probably fiction: No doubt there's a steel or concrete frame beneath all that architectural rhetoric.

The bricks and windows at One Western tell a story about construction too, but it's a different one. They say that this building is an invisible frame wrapped in thin cladding. It's a truer story, perhaps, but one told in a far less visually rich, and far less generally understood, architectural language. It's a basic problem of our time, in architecture, that we no longer have a visual language common to both the avant-garde and the general public. Of course that's true in other arts as well. I'm not suggesting we revive dead languages, but it would be nice if we could agree on a contemporary one.

Bottom line? One Western as seen from a distance is aggressively dull, blocky, and abstract. Overweight people are always advised not to wear white, and One Western's general paleness makes it look bigger and dumber than it is. Nothing about it, except the courtyard, suggests the joy of human habitation. Up close, the many patterns are a poor substitute for architectural vitality.

But that courtyard is fabulous, and the bridge wing is a stroke of daring genius. And politically, One Western is a responsible answer to complaints, by both Cambridge and Boston, that university people in the housing market have driven rents out of sight. As for height and density, which are problems for some, I see no reason why modest slim towers along the river shouldn't pop up, so long as they don't overwhelm older neighborhoods, which they certainly don't here. The Charles River edges must be preserved as public parkland, of course. But behind them, why shouldn't lots of people live nearby to enjoy the river?

One Western isn't a disaster, but it is a lost opportunity. This is a great site that deserved a greater building.

Robert Campbell can be reached at

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