Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University

Le Corbusier with Sert, Jackson, and Gourley, 1961–1963

Harleston Parker Medal, 1964

The only building in North America by the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, the Carpenter Center is a highly sculptural response to its site and use. Studios occupy curving concrete volumes faced with sunscreens that pinwheel around a similarly articulated rectangular block at the center. Stair towers provide a strong sense of verticality, countered by the horizontal meandering of a ramp that cuts through the heart of the building to connect streets on opposite sides. An extension of the sidewalk outside, the ramp is entirely open and allows the public to walk up and look through walls of glass at the studios inside. The Sert Gallery and café were later alterations named for Le Corbusier’s protégé, GSD Dean Josep Lluis Sert, who championed the project.

Designer of Boston's Hancock Tower and one-time Harvard GSD Architecture Chair Henry Cobb helps put the Carpenter Center into context: “Harvard Yard has a great tradition of spacious quadrangles crisscrossed by diagonal paths. But what was Corbusier given for this building that was intended to celebrate the arts at Harvard? He was given a cramped and altogether marginal site outside the Yard, hemmed in by pre-existing buildings. So what does he do? He creates his own metaphorical campus with that marvelous diagonal ramp - a stroke of genius, the architectural equivalent of nuclear fusion in its compaction of energy. At an intuitive level transcending any amount of logic or reasoning, the Carpenter Center is magnificent. The architect took the lousy hand he was dealt and transformed into a royal flush. It… splendidly embodies the ideal of mature judgment born of experience joined with undiminished capacity to think freshly. It’s an extraordinary invention.”

Despite its sculptural brilliance, the building's classrooms and studios are not the most comfortable or user-friendly, and the spaces have rarely been used in the way Le Corbusier envisioned. The Carpenter Center sat rather underappreciated until Renzo Piano's Harvard Art Museum project reached out a hand and helped present it in a somewhat better light.

Source: “On the Record with Henry Cobb,” Log 38, Fall 2016.Images: ©Steve Rosenthal, 1987, 1997. All rights reserved.