Holyoke Center, which occupies a full city block in the heart of Harvard Square, is a ten-story, 360,000 square foot facility originally designed by José Luis Sert in 1960. The main plan of the concrete structure is H-shaped, with the north wing along Massachusetts Avenue and south wing along Mt. Auburn Street. The central connecting portion sets back from both Dunster Street and Holyoke Street and is approximately the same width as the two wings. The structural height is 133 feet and the total height is 167 feet.
Holyoke Center is the main administration building of Harvard University. At street level, a pedestrian arcade, occupying two stories in height, runs through the block. Originally, the arcade was no more than a link connecting the Harvard Yard and the river houses and the main entrance to the offices. Then in 1993, as part of “The Shops by Harvard Yard” project, ten kiosks along the arcade were opened after renovation. In 1999, two glass gates on each side were installed to block out the wind and for security reasons. Now it is an active area because it is the main entrance to the offices, several shops, and restaurants. On the north end of the site there is a branch bank and on the south end there are a heath center reception and a library. The above floors of the building were occupied by university administration offices and University Health Services including a fully-equipped infirmary. There is a parking garage underground.
The facades show the architect’s ideas of modernism. The random pattern of the windows and sandwich panels represent the variations inside. The glass of the windows is held by metal frames. Across each window, on three sides (except the north side where the window bars are brick red) of the building, there are red, orange, and yellow bars. Large sheets of windows are designed to “frame the view”. The windows do not open.
The construction of Holyoke Center had four phases. Phase 1 completed in 1961. The south half of the H-shaped building was built, and University’s Health Services moved into the completed wing. The building was expanded on the east side at street level in the Phase 2 in 1963. In 1966, the north wing was built in Phase 3. The majority of the construction completed. In the same year, in Phase 4, a bank was built on the north end of the site.
Holyoke Center was designed by José Luis Sert in the 1950’s as an administration building of Harvard University. Mr. Sert was a world class architect, and also a former dean of Graduate School of Design in Harvard University. It was the first high rise building in Harvard University. The design gave rise to much controversy. The building was thought to be too high, too large, and showed no respect to the historic area in which it was located. The site was surrounded by historic brick buildings wit Georgian roofs, which were no more than two stories. The building was called “grey elephant” due to its Brutalist reinforced concrete facades.
Holyoke Center was the only high rise cast-in-place concrete building in Harvard University at that time. The innovation with a new type of surface was an architectural experiment. However, the concrete started to crumble 15 years after its completion. The configurations of the facades were also advanced for its time. Alternated with clear glass, the translucent sandwich panels allow much sunshine into the interior spaces. However, the windows could not open and the “three-pipe” system contributed to the serious energy costs issue.
It was the first high rise building in that area. It was the beginning of modern architecture activity of Harvard University. After its construction, Harvard Science Center and Peabody Terrace were built.
The value of this building is considered as a symbol of modern architecture activity in Harvard University in the 1960’s. Its innovative use of new materials and new structure were very advanced for the time. Although the restorations and improvements never stop, it is thought to be a successful architectural experiment.
Knight, R. F. (1966). The Holyoke Center: a few comments. Connection. 4-9.
Holyoke Center at Harvard University. (1962). Architectural Record. 132-137.
Holyoke Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965; architects: Sert, Jackson & Associates. (1982). Process: Architecture. (34), 108.
Josep M. Rovira, Sert half a century of architecture: 1928-1979, complete work, [Barcelona] : Fundacio? Joan Miro?, c2005, pp247-255.
Sofia Cheviakoff, Alberto Duarte, Josep Llui?s Sert / [editor Sofia Cheviakoff], Gloucester, Mass, [Great Britain]: Rockport, 2003, pp8.
Anrea O. Dean, Evaluation: 'Gray elephant' in Harvard Square: Holyoke Center, most successful of the university's first-generation highrises, AIA Journal 1979 Jan., v.68, n.1, p.48-51.
http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=218223, CHRISTOPHER J. GEORGES, Holyoke Center Crumbles, The Harvard Crimson Online Edition, November 2, 1983.