Note a separate walking tour provides an introduction to the historic center of the campus around Harvard Yard.
In the early seventeenth century, when it was only a house on nine acres, students paid tuition in farm produce, livestock, and useful items: cutlery, an ax for chopping firewood, even a pair of used boots. Harvard College was almost a theological school, and half of its graduates filled positions in New England churches. Attendance at morning prayer and evensong remained compulsory into the nineteenth century.
Today the university owns 567 acres between Cambridge and Allston, and has the largest academic endowment in the world at around $40Bn. Though theology is no longer its main line of business, Harvard has elevated many architectural dieties through the years. Its faculty and alumni, and the campus itself, have had a broad and significant impact on the architecture of Boston - and the world.
Robert Campbell called the campus "a living museum of almost every trend in the history of American architecture." It is a remarkable collection, though the curation sometimes leaves something to be desired: insensitive alterations, siting, and mediocre neighboring buildings often detract from their appreciation. H. H. Richardson's Austin Hall was forever compromised when it ended up in the back yard of the Littauer Center. The Carpenter Center, the only North American building by Le Corbusier, was only recently welcomed into full view by virtue of the new Harvard Art Museum project.
Creating the Harvard Square Defense Fund in 1979 brought out a surprising assertiveness in the community, particularly against contemporary architecture, and today the Cambridge Historical Commission is responsible for preserving the city's historical integrity and diversity. Decades after I. M. Pei’s 1973 proposal for a Kennedy Presidential Library was rebuffed near the site of today's Kennedy School (the design was later repurposed as the Louvre Museum pyramid in Paris), Hans Hollein’s early design for a book conservation center at 90 Mount Auburn was turned down, as was a plan to consolidate the Harvard Art Museums along the Charles. More recently, "new classical/modern traditionalist" architect Robert A.M. Stern has been engaged at the Law School, Business School, and Kennedy School to try to restore some coherence to what had become fragmented campuses. These designs generally look backward, assimilating rather than challenging, except perhaps in their large scale.
On the other hand, contemporary projects including the Harvard Art Museums by Renzo Piano and several by innovative architects such as Leers Weinzapfel, Kyu Sung Woo, and Kennedy & Violich reflect an improved focus on community relations, and a recovering appetite to push the boundaries of design. Going forward, expect Harvard's more revolutionary building projects to arise across the river on the new Allston campus. For better or worse, it's difficult to imagine another Carpenter Center or Lampoon Castle passing public muster in Cambridge today.
For those interested in learning more, Douglas Shand-Tucci's "Harvard University Campus Guide" provides a thorough and colorful reference on Harvard's history and development.