By Andrew Lin
Thoughts on the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
For all his Internationalist fervor, the noted French modernist architect Le Corbusier only ever designed one building in the United States, a country arguably rooted in multicultural assimilation and integration. This historical peccadillo, however, is rather easily explained by Le Corbusier’s political leanings: although he was never consciously opposed to American capitalism per se, Le Corbusier always found more favor with the mass-housing estates espoused by mid-century French big-state socialism (and even brief flirtations with Soviet governmental grandstanding). It is therefore altogether fitting that Le Corbusier’s one great North American building should tower along the ivy-covered lanes of Harvard, that “Kremlin on the Charles” of higher education in America. Indeed, it is Harvard’s own Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts – fifty years old as of 2012 – that hosts the distinct honor of being Le Corbusier’s grand American debut work, an architectural tour-de-force unique in the United States.
And what a tour-de-force it is: from its swooping-through-the-building ramp to its box-grid facade, the Carpenter Center is an outstanding representation of Le Corbusier’s mature output as an architect. During the design process, Le Corbusier was distinctly conscious of this building’s eventual status as his lone marker in the United States, a status further cemented by his own poor health: upon its completion in 1962, he was too ill to even attend the opening ceremony, and he died just three years later in 1965. Not that his health stopped him from exercising the full force of his talents: in designing the Carpenter Center, Corbusier carefully integrated his mature “Five Points” of architecture into the design to produce a work that would at a stroke capture both the architectural diversity of the United States while also retaining a fundamental allegiance to the International style which he so espoused. To this end, Corbusier enlisted the help of Harvard-based architect Josef Luis Sert, the head of the Graduate School of Design at the time who worked in a more distinctly Brutalist fashion.
But the building that resulted was something altogether more friendly than the Brutalist edifices – some of Harvard’s own exemplars include the Science Center, Peabody Terrace, and the Smith Campus Center – which Sert would go on to design. The Carpenter Center is swooping curves set amidst a sea of blocky grey concrete, punctuated only by the colored panels both Le Corbusier and Sert so adored. Nevertheless, the effect works rather well: the angularity of the building’s bulkier features grounds the curves in a substantial and distinctive architectural statement of intent, one made all the more salient by its rather incongruous placement in the midst of Harvard’s bristling Colonial campus. Times, however, have changed since the heady days of the 1960s: the once-lauded modernism of Le Corbusier and Sert is now considered by most (not least the public) as an interesting anachronism at best. Yet the purpose of the Carpenter Center over its fifty years has grown rather than receded, what with the installation of Harvard’s own Film Archive (the largest archive of 35 mm film in the country) and the expansion of its ramp to be contiguous with the Fogg Art Museum.
Two small galleries complement the Carpenter Center’s own status as the home of the visual arts at Harvard, presenting (perhaps by a happy historical coincidence) two sets in miniature of work which engage closely with the Carpenter Center’s own historical significance. Their gaze, however, is not exclusively rose-tinted: both Margaret Lee’s de, da, do…da and Martin Beck’s Episode 8: A Social Question cast an impartial eye on those oh-so-sixties undercurrents of artistic modernism and social change, respectively. In both the time from which it came and its architectural design, the Carpenter Center is deeply and intrinsically connected to a highly masculine conception of modernism, one which Margaret Lee critiques in her de, da, do…da, a small collection of sculptures in the Level 0 gallery. Riffing off of the famous Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock, Lee transmutes their brash masculinity into cold industrial brushstrokes in metal. A metal phallus, stripped of any personalizing masculinity by virtue of its cold, industrial finish, complements Lee’s commentary on the fundamental emptiness of the more masculine aspects of the modernism to which the Carpenter Center owed its gestation.
Beck’s Episode 8: A Social Question is not so directly critical, or for that matter even indirectly so. Instead, it functions more as a lens on the past, an impartial reflection of previous social representations of the human condition. Beck presents photographs of people viewing photographs, specifically photographs of people viewing the 1973 exhibition “The Social Question: A Photographic Record 1895-1910”. Beck does his best to be as faithful to the original exhibition in his set-up on the first floor of the Carpenter Center: garish flower bouquets straight out of the 1970s adorn the otherwise spartan Level 1 exhibition gallery. The photographs themselves engender a certain sense akin to looking at a mirror mirrored by another mirror: Beck’s photos are not merely photographs of the original 1973 photos, but feature the viewing public of the time as well. What ultimately results, both from Beck’s mirrored images of the viewing public and Lee’s implicit emasculation of mid-century modernism, is a sense of the tremendous relevance and continuity of the visual arts at Harvard – visual arts which are enshrined in a Carpenter Center altogether up to the task of containing them.
As a resident of Mather House, Andrew Lin ’17 (email@example.com) is well-acquainted with the ravages of Brutalist architecture.