By Andrew Lin
A competitive comparison of the architectural settings of Harvard and Yale.
For the budding Harvard-Yale attendee, there are many preparations to be made for the big game: what shuttle to take, what sleeping accommodations to slump into at the end of each night, what parties to attend, etc. Perhaps the most essential preparation for any uninitiated Harvard-Yale attendee, however (I’m looking at you, freshmen), is the viewing of a simple video. This video, however, is not a mere a breakdown of the best parties/accommodations/free food at the game, but instead is something much better: Sam Clark’s hilarious 2013 Harvard-Yale prank video, in which free tours and the virtues of Gothic architecture were hawked to unsuspecting visitors. But the architectural leitmotif that Sam Clark treated with so much irreverence nonetheless presents an interesting comparison: how does Harvard’s architecture compare with Yale’s? The Indy Arts section has therefore decided to take on this onerous question in the competitive and sporting spirit of the Harvard-Yale game – a game which, like this article, will hopefully demonstrate Harvard’s continuing supremacy in all things collegiate.
Any understanding of this critical question is contingent on a firm understanding of Yale’s own architectural history and heritage. We all know (at least in brief) the architectural history of Harvard: founded in 1636, Harvard steadily expanded from the Yard along resolutely colonial lines, albeit with some occasional red-brick Richardsonian Romanesque-type flourishes (think Sever Hall) in the 19th century and a decent heaping of fairly questionable Brutalist edifices in the 20th century. Yale, however, possesses a distinguished architectural heritage hailed by New York Times architecture critic (and Yale graduate) Paul Goldberger as “some of the best American architecture of the past hundred years.” And indeed he does have a point: a host of architectural stars ranging from Louis I. Kahn to Eero Saarinen have all designed prominent campus buildings at Yale. Nor is Yale’s older architecture anything bland: its soaring Gothic architecture stands in stark contrast to the straight-laced Federal stylings of so many other universities – Harvard included.
A quick walk through the campus, however, reveals more similarities than one would expect. The story of architecture at Yale starts in 1701 with a smattering of red-brick colonial buildings, one a church and the other a general-purpose college building. These buildings would soon form the nexus of Yale’s Old Brick Row, a collection of freshman dormitories and humanities buildings fairly reminiscent of Harvard Yard. The similarities do not stop there: Old Brick Row is graced with a Connecticut Hall that nicely parallels Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall as the oldest colonial-era edifice on the campus, and Old Brick Row has seen many architectural additions since its first buildings were constructed in the mid-1700s. These architectural additions, however, have been altogether grander in scope compared to the Gilded-Age freshman dorms Harvard saw in the late 1800s. Whether in the form of the imposing Victorian Gothic Dwight Hall Library or the turreted and arched affectations of Phelps Hall, Yale presents a formidable assortment of Gothic buildings to rival even the twin towers of Weld or the elaborate stone-work on Matthews Hall back in the Yard.
The similarities between the Harvard and Yale campuses do not stop there, however. Any undergraduate seeking to find housing for the Game know of the sisterly relationships between the upperclassmen houses at Harvard and Yale, whose 12 houses (ignoring the Dudley Co-Op, which is usually folded in with Pforzheimer) match up each year to provide accommodations. Of these matched pairs, Yale’s upperclassmen houses do to some extent excel their Harvard counterparts on an aesthetic level: while the vertical Mather House does assert its dominance over the rest of the river houses with a sort of blunt power, it pales in comparison to the subtler, rooted-in-the-earth nature of Eero Saarinen’s altogether more refined Morse College. A modernist tour de force when it first opened its doors with its architectural sister Erza Stiles College in 1961, Morse College features a uniquely curved interior design paradigm at odds with the perpetual straight-lined orthodoxy of Mather. Harvard, however, features its own share of modernist masterpieces: although Josef Lluis Sert’s Science Center and Smith Campus Center may represent brutalism at its most pedantic, such oft-forgotten buildings as Le Corbusier’s magnificent old Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts demonstrate Harvard’s own modern gems.
So now the question remains – whose architecture reigns supreme? Both Harvard and Yale feature astonishing collections of some of the finest collegiate architecture this side of the Atlantic, steeped simultaneously in an atmosphere of great tradition and constant innovation. In the rankings for the architecture schools at the two campuses, both Harvard and Yale routinely jostle each other for the first and second spots as well. Most notable of all, however, is the cross-school connections between Harvard and Yale architecturally, whether in the shared Colonial and even Gothic styles or the cross-institutional links that were so important to designers such as former Harvard School of Design dean Josef Sert, whose modernism evolved into its Science-Center form in the course of a visiting professorship at Yale. These architectural cross-links, however, are more than just mere peccadillos for the architectural anorak in your life: rather, they signify the fundamental interconnectedness of the collegiate architectural condition. For architecture is ultimately should not and cannot become a competitive sport: while Pritzker Prizes and AIA dinners certainly allow for the recognition of architectural talent, architecture is at its base a collective endeavor borne of the cultural heritage of our shared civilization. And in this lens, the verdict that Yale ultimately does have a superior architectural heritage to Harvard recedes into the background, a blip in the firmament of collegiate education at large – and a blip that future Harvard architectural additions may yet vanquish.
Andrew Lin ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) heartily prefers Yale’s architectural decision to construct a stadium with a retaining wall low enough to avoid breaking an ankle or two.