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Beauty or ugliness? In architecture, it’s beside the point

A notable predecessor’s example gives reason for open-mindedness in assessing a previous era’s buildings, even the “ugly” ones from the 1960s and 1970s that Tom Keane conflates with bad architecture (“Good with the bad,” Op-ed, May 7). Eminent art historian Charles Eliot Norton demonstrated the risk of wearing stylistic blinders when, in 1890, he expressed the hope for “the destruction of all the buildings erected in the last half-century” on Harvard’s campus.

Among the buildings Norton would have erased were H. H. Richardson’s Austin and Sever Halls and Ware and Van Brunt’s Memorial Hall. Such structures clearly were “ugly,” comparable to Keane’s more recent targets. In their place, Norton envisioned a chaste, harmonious, and well-behaved Harvard campus, an entire precinct characterized by the nobility that Keane rightly finds in the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building — although it would only have been achieved through the sacrifice of what are now acknowledged to be great works of architecture.

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Critic John Summerson assessed the High Victorian Gothic architecture of William Butterfield, which influenced Memorial Hall’s design, as a problem of understanding “ugliness” in the context of greater design goals. Summerson observed that Butterfield believed in “something beyond and more important than beauty or its antithesis.”

Fortunately, these three Harvard masterpieces survived the tides of taste, despite Norton’s exclusionary daydream. We, and our cities and campuses, are the better for the persistence of such heterogeneity and authenticity. Vigilance is necessary as well to ensure that we can continue to create new architecture of merit and substance, qualities that, to use Summerson’s words, are perhaps “more important than beauty or its antithesis.”

Gary Wolf


The writer is an architect.

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