Built in 1964 during his tenure as Dean at the Graduate School of Design, Josep Lluís Sert’s Peabody Terrace provides housing for almost 1500 Harvard graduate students and their families. One of several projects Sert designed for Harvard’s campus, it is a manifestation of his vision for the ideal neighborhood. Many elements such as the negotiation of scale, mixed use program, shared open space and design aesthetic were influenced by but represent a departure from earlier modern housing projects.
Peabody Terrace is a prototypical example of a twentieth-century project heralded by the architectural community as an exemplar of progressive modern ideals, but lambasted by neighbors and members of the general public for being unattractive, cold and imposing. This project and others like it highlight the disconnect that can occur between the architectural intelligentsia and the communities in which they build.
Peabody Terrace is located within a 10 minute walk from Harvard Square, in the neighborhood of Riverside. Along with Sert’s other projects at Harvard such as the Holyoke Center and the Science Center, the new married-student housing was conceived as part of a larger masterplan for the campus. Three-story volumes at the perimeter step up to five and seven stories towards the interior. This lower composition of masses is punctuated by three 22 story towers. The gradation in height relates to the adjacent low-rise residential context while also providing the greater density required by the university’s demand for housing.
Slender housing bars divide the site into a series of shared courtyards. The existing automotive streets were converted to pedestrian paths and the site was intended to be porous to the neighboring community. The series of quadrangles and three-sided open space facing the Charles River echo the procession of open spaces found on of Harvard’s main campus and river houses. Although Sert intentionally referenced the type of exterior spaces found on campus, he broke away from the previously dominant Georgian architectural language.
Born in Barcelona, Sert started his architectural career in the late 1920s, as the Bauhaus was gaining prominence. In Europe, he worked for Le Corbusier and served as president of CIAM from 1947-56. After moving to the US as a political exile, Sert worked for Town Planning Associates on urban planning projects for South America and was Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1953 to 1969.
Sert believed architecture had a social mission and he popularized the attitude that “architects should be thinking about the city as a whole and not only about individual buildings.” (1) At Harvard, he initiated the first ever American degree program in urban design. Additionally, he commissioned Le Corbusier to design the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the Swiss architect's only project in the US.
Low-rise buildings and towers alike are aggregations of three story modules internally connected by a stair. A skip-stop elevator, the system used in Le Corbusier’s Unite d’ Habitation, typically stops at every third floor. Higher towers are connected to the lower buildings on the fourth and sixth floor. A regular grid of concrete columns and flat slab floor plates stack vertically, with only 7’-6” ceiling heights at each residential level.
In addition to the 497 housing units, the complex contained a playground, paved roof terraces, three nurseries, a drugstore, two laundromats with sitting rooms, coin operated laundry rooms, a large meeting room with a kitchen, two seminar rooms, basement and ground floor storage facilities, and a garage for 352 cars. The site covers 5.9 acres and provides four compact apartment sizes: 415 square foot efficiencies, 487 square foot one-bedrooms, 766 square foot two-bedrooms, and 960 square foot three bedrooms.
Unit plans are streamlined and compact. The skip-stop elevator system allows any unit not located on a corridor floor to span the entire depth of the floor plate, providing cross ventilation and through-views. Furniture, such as a desk in the deep window well created adjacent to a closet, is closely integrated with the architecture.
The façade of Peabody Terrace reflects Sert’s desire to “bring the color and life of the Mediterranean to the white cubist architecture of northern Europe.” (2) Shear walls are mainly blank and constructed out of cast-in-place concrete. Other walls consist of precast concrete and glazing.
Layered on top of the weighty concrete walls, a light armature of balconies in a staggered pattern provide exterior living space and reflect the variation of interior unit plans. The bright white color and shifting of louvers bring lightness and dynamism to the elevations. Operable ventilation panels adjacent to windows in bright red and green add splashes of vibrant color.
Architectural critic Robert Campbell observed that “Peabody Terrace is a building beloved by architects and disliked by almost everyone else.” (3) Sert, Jackson and Grouley received the prestigious Harleston Parker Medal from the BSA and the Gold Medal of the AIA and for the design and construction of the project. Reviews in architectural publications at the time of the project’s completion were generally positive and focused on the design's departure from contemporary modern housing projects. A 1964 article in Progressive Architecture credited Peabody Terrace with creating “an efficiently workable interior arrangement, a lively sequence of exterior spaces, and a fluent continuity from low to high, and from old to new structures.” (4) Thirty years later in 1994, the same publication noted in an article entitled “Yesterday’s Paradigm, Today’s Problem” that the project had become “an embarrassment to Harvard, and the last resort of graduate students who couldn’t find a better place to live.” (5)
Renovations completed in 1996 by Bruner/Cott addressed a number of issues while keeping all major tenets of Sert’s design largely intact. Improvements included repairs to cast in place concrete, total replacement of windows, expanded kitchens, an accessibility review, and upgrades to all critical building systems. Progressive Architecture commented that because of the renovations, "Peabody Terrace may now be rehabilitated in terms of its place in history, as well as its function at Harvard." (5) In 2013, common spaces were renovated and the landscaped terrace received a complete overhaul.
For more on Sert's work in Cambridge, see this article on the now demolished Martin Luther King Elementary School.
(1) Campbell, Robert, in the film “J.L. Sert/A Nomadic Dream.”
(2) Campbell, Robert, in the film “J.L. Sert/A Nomadic Dream.”
(3) Campbell, Robert, “Why Don’t the Rest of Us Like the Buildings the Architects Like?”, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Summer 2004): 22.
(4) "Harvard's new married student housing." Progressive Architecture 45, 122-.
(5) Dixon, John Morris. 1994. "Yesterday's paradigm, today's problem." Progressive Architecture 75, no. 6: 100-107.
Cott, Lee. 2003. "Why architects love Peabody Terrace." Architecture Boston, 6, no. 4: 20-25.
Goldhagen, Sarah Williams. 2005. "The production of locality in Josep Luis Sert's Peabody terrace." Harvard Design Magazine no. 22
"Harvard's new married student housing." Progressive Architecture 45, 122-
J.L. Sert/A Nomadic Dream. http://www.jlsertfilm.com
McManus, Otile. 2003. "Why the public (still) hates Peabody Terrace." Architecture Boston, 6, no. 4: 26-28.
Architects: Sert, Jackson & Gourley
- Year: 1964