Fitting in and looking as if it belonged was never the point. Otherwise, it would have been made of red brick, not slabs of barefaced concrete. It would have shuffled its interior spaces into neat stacks so people would know where they were and where they were going instead of feeling a sense of perpetual disorientation. It would have faced Quincy Street with an honest, straightforward facade instead of peering down over its barrel shoulder and uncoiling its ramp to the sidewalk like an animal sipping water at a stream.
But then if the Harvard administration had wanted the Carpenter Center to stand plinth by pilaster with the Fogg Museum, the Faculty Club, and the Freshman Union (now the Barker Center), they wouldn’t have asked Le Corbusier to be its designer.
That was in 1958, after José Luis Sert, then dean of the Graduate School of Design, wrote to McGeorge Bundy, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), urging him to offer Le Corbusier the commission. The Swiss-born artist and architect was then 71, and, despite being miffed at the United States because he had been denied the commission to design the United Nations, he accepted Harvard’s offer.
Le Corbusier visited the site in 1959 (it seemed disappointingly cramped) and returned the following year with a model of the proposed building. It was finished in 1963, which makes 2003-04 the Carpenter Center’s 40th anniversary.
The occasion is being celebrated with an exhibition in the building’s lobby organized by Brian Goldstein ’04, a concentrator in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), and Michelle Kuo, a graduate student in the history of art and architecture. On March 11, Francesco Passanti, a leading Le Corbusier scholar, inaugurated the exhibition with a lecture titled “The Carpenter Center and Le Corbusier’s Synthesis of the Arts.” The exhibition, “VAC BOS,” standing for “Visual Arts Center, Boston,” Le Corbusier’s working title for the project, will be on display until April 15.
The Carpenter Center is an important building not only because it is the only product of Le Corbusier’s genius on this continent, but also because it represents the architect’s late phase, and, like the edgy mannerist buildings Michelangelo designed in old age, possesses an inherently disturbing, unsettling character.
“The architecture is emotional, and the emotions are not easy or soothing. I would call them tragic,” Passanti said.
Passanti enlarged on this notion with reference to the building’s S-shaped ramp, a feature he said takes its inspiration from the Babylonian ziggurat and the Roman aqueduct. The ramp is the main axis of the structure, and yet at the point where it bisects the building, it forms a tunnel open at both ends, a monumental void.
“It is as if the axis has eaten through the building.”
Passanti compared the experience of walking up the ramp and passing the workshop and gallery spaces on either side to the sensation a passenger on a train feels when a train on an adjoining track races past in the night.
“It is a very powerful and emotional feeling,” he said. “I have often wondered why whenever I walk up the ramp, I get the shivers. How does he achieve that?”
The answer has something to do with the building’s deliberate refusal to make sense, to accommodate to our expectations.
“This is a world that is as sharp as a razor, but is not serving our needs. It is enunciated like a fact, but it does not make sense. A situation that is an objective statement of fact but makes no sense is a definition of the tragic.”
But in spite of its aloof and eccentric character, the building also does a brilliant job of fulfilling its purpose – integrating the visual and plastic arts into the academic community. Its success perhaps stems from the fact that Le Corbusier’s lifelong preoccupations coincided to a significant degree with the educational aims that Harvard had recently set for itself.
In 1954, President Pusey appointed a committee to investigate the place of the visual arts in Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum. The committee, chaired by former overseer John Nicholas Brown, issued its report two years later. Two of its principal recommendations were that the University build a center for the study of the visual arts (the Carpenter Center) and a theater building for the study of the dramatic arts (the Loeb Drama Center).
This interest in the arts was part of a trend in higher education at the time, Passanti said, a growing awareness that greater participation in art-making was needed to counteract the cerebral, mechanistic emphasis of modern life. It was also an issue Le Corbusier had struggled with his entire career, beginning in the early 20th century with a romantic rejection of the industrial aspects of modernism, and evolving later into a strategy of using industrial methods and materials to serve emotional and aesthetic ends.
The Carpenter Center achieves its goal not only by providing students with spacious, well-lighted spaces to practice drawing, painting, and sculpture but also by opening these spaces to the street and to the campus beyond. The building brings the arts into the community by offering the public opportunities to explore its intriguing interior.
“As an art school, the Carpenter Center has been an amazing success. It provides studio space, visual stimuli, exposure of the arts on campus, but most of all, it provides a personality against which to measure oneself.”
The exhibition, “VAC BOS,” includes photographs of the building, paintings and prints by Le Corbusier, drawings and plans showing the evolution of the design, a video loop of historical films about the Carpenter Center and Le Corbusier’s work, and the original model of the building that the architect brought to Harvard in 1960.