American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Originally published in , 1988

When Kallmann and McKinnell – consummate Modernists known at the time for their brutalist Boston City Hall of 1968 – produced the gentle, arcadian American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1980, it caused quite a stir among avid style-labelers in the Modernism/Postmodernism debate. Although noted critic Ada Louise Huxtable termed it “an architectural event of genuine significance… a revolutionary building,” it was not an easy building to classify or fit into a categorical mold.

On the one hand, analogies were drawn between the plan of the American Academy and the plan of the Corbusier-inspired Boston City Hall. The strict modularity, rigorous grid and rhythmic order of both buildings seemed comfortably Modern. On the other hand, critics also observed an ancient element in both plans. Kallmann himself recalled someone’s early comment on the Boston City Hall that “not since Knossos have bureaucrats worked in such labyrinthic surroundings.” Henry Millon, a member of the Academy and director of the Center for Advanced Study at the National Gallery of Art, reportedly observed a similar affinity between the American Academy’s plan and that of a Mycenean palace.

The visual character of the building’s exterior also left room for ambiguity. Although difficult to interpret as stylistically Modern, the major expression of the building held a comfortably Modern concept-that of a structural ordering of elements. It was not difficult to see this building “fitting” in with Kallmann and McKinnell’s earlier construction-inspired projects that had earned them the nicknames “Columns and Mechanical” among their students at Harvard.

And yet the visual character was also surprisingly romantic, lush, and even nostalgic. Donald Canty called it “historicism with a vengeance, but of a different sort than that associated with Postmodernism.” The architects themselves called it “pre-Modern” and roundly disavowed any connection with “cut-and-paste historicism.”

In fact, the strength of the building lies not in its fidelity to any doctrine or in any didactic role it might play in current debates. Rather, it lies in its reality as a tangible building inspired by and connected to its place, its purpose and its own confirmation.

The process of designing the American Academy began well when Lawrence Anderson, former dean of architecture and planning at M.I.T. and a member of the Academy, outlined a short program that served as the agenda for subsequent design. Dean Anderson observed, “It is not necessary to assert a strong visible presence in the community. Indeed, a façade that claims too much would be an affront to the conservative, well-kept houses nearby…. It would be as well not to be able to see the entire building at once.”

The site deserved to be handled with a certain restraint, even with deference. Located at the highest point in a nineteenth-century neighborhood on the fringes of Harvard University, the modest hill where the Academy was to be built had once been the site of the 1790 residence of John Philips, Boston’s first mayor. Philips called his home Shady Hill in acknowledgment of its memorable locale. Steeped in controversy because of Harvard’s demolition of the historic Philips home in 1955, the site demanded a building in gentle concurrence with its surroundings. The architects responded by growing a structure out of the sylvan setting.

The stepped massing of the building reiterates and completes the site’s modest hill. The branching outriggers of the upper floor embrace and vaguely emulate the limbs of mature trees that envelope the building. The weathering Copper roof even completes the ensemble of the knoll in color. The consonance of building and site lends the Academy a tangible verity borrowed from nature. By tapping into what is longstanding and indisputably real, the building gains a reality of its own. It becomes one with its place.

The American Academy building also seems remarkably in tune with its purpose as a gathering place for some of the nation’s finest minds and talents. Dean Anderson again gave appropriate direction in this regard when he suggested that “the individual should feel at ease rather than in awe. Fruitful conversation is the Academy’s stock in trade, and the word implies small groups even if multitudes are present.”

The building feels academic. It is gentle, nurturing, reasonable. Inside, it is full of intimate “trysting places” which its benefactor, Dr. Edwin Land of Polaroid Corporation, requested as spots “where great minds copulate.” There is a quiet, comfortable, contemplative mood to the various living, meeting and conversation rooms on the ground floor. Almost devoid of “signature” gimmicks, the rooms seem genuinely in service to their purpose. The expression is real and particular – not abstract, not polemical, not didactic.

A third aura of reality is lent the building by its rigorous conformation. Though informal in its general footprint and fractured at its edges, the building is clearly a carefully assembled object. Its materiality is palpable. At the perimeter porch, hefty red brick piers are capped by strong, planar grey granite capitals. Massive beams and rhythmic secondary rafters (both in natural finish mahogany) complete a simple, clear order of parts and materials. Apple-green painted soffits join the supporting order to the volume of the weathered copper roof. On the upper floor, a less massive order of wooden columns and outriggers visually support the roof, diminishing the building’s assertiveness as it leaves the solidity of the hill and reaches for the sky.

The rigor of the repetitive two-foot-square perimeter piers order the bulk of the building’s plan without restricting the variability of space size and configuration which the program demanded. Throughout, there is a sense of support and assembly without reliance on literal expression of construction. Some of the building’s visible structure is, one realizes, rhetorical, with an invisible steel frame doing part of the structural “dirty-work.” The clarity of articulation wins our complicity by its plausibility and convincing manner rather than through blatant candor.

The American Academy presents itself as earnest, resolute architecture devoid of the recondite codes and pedantic allusiveness of so much recent architecture that has addressed similar goals of contextualism and accessibility. Its relation to any precedents seem empathetic rather than representational. Its gentility and familiarity do not mask a strength of character that sets the building apart from its peers. It has qualities of presence and appropriateness that are not easily conveyed in photographs but which make the building a real architectural monument-one that is best perceived by being there and experiencing it as a living artifact.

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Originally published in , 1988