Celebrating Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center

Harvard honors the anniversary of its center for visual arts, a triumph of design and versatility

Appropriately enough, it was the ramp of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (CCVA) that bore its christening on May 27, 1963. That evening, a “family party” was held in honor of the opening of the Carpenter Center, with guests including then-University President Nathan M. Pusey, patrons Mr. and Mrs. St. Vrain Carpenter, Dean of the Graduate School of Design José Luis Sert, and his wife Moncha Sert. To inaugurate the building—the first in North America designed by architectural great Le Corbusier—the university luminaries in attendance splashed champagne on the ramp, leaving a stain on its rough concrete.

Perhaps it could have happened no other way, for even now, nearly 41 years after the opening of the Carpenter Center, visitors and the building’s regular users find the most interest—and perplexity—in the ramp that passes through the middle of the building.

During his first visit to Harvard in November 1959, Le Corbusier was struck by the sudden beauty of a flood of students on intersecting pathways between class periods. This hourly ritual became the basis for the spiral-shaped ramp that appears in the first sketch of what would become the Carpenter Center. This was to be a means of passing through the building as well as “une route touristique” [tourist route], and the diagonal movement of students was to be prompted by bells installed within the building.

Bells however did not make it into the final design, and the earliest plans feature not a spiral, but a smooth ramp weaving through the middle of the Carpenter Center. Likewise, the path along the Carpenter Center’s ramp is not animated by the black and white checkerboard terrazzo floors Le Corbusier initially intended for the second and third floor studios visible through the large glass windows of this interior space. But the ramp still provided a view into the life of the building, so visitors would understand its purpose and the practice of art was immediately visible to the Harvard community.

Le Corbusier’s “climbing street” was meant to connect Harvard’s architectural past—the buildings and diagonal paths of the Yard—with what was then thought to be the university’s future, along Prescott Street and beyond. Yet Harvard expanded in other directions, and only retrospectively can the ramp be seen as an idealistic move on the part of the architect, that, like the Carpenter Center itself, has evolved in purpose in the 40 years since its completion.

The occasion of the Carpenter Center’s 40th anniversary, which is being celebrated during the 2003-2004 school year through the end of 2004, has given pause to the nature of a landmark building on a constantly evolving campus. This issue is especially germane as the University expands to the north and plans for a new campus in Allston.

Marjorie Garber, Chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and Director of the Carpenter Center, finds that the anniversary affords an opportunity to understand both the historical- and use-value of the building. “Buildings, like other art works, are living things that grow and change,” Garber says. At the Carpenter Center, this has meant adding not only mundane needs not included in Le Corbusier’s original design—such as offices for a sufficient number of faculty members—but also finding ways to accommodate changing artistic practices.

“I do think VES and the Carpenter Center are, and should continue to be, inextricably linked. But we will need, indeed we already need, additional space, not only for our courses in film and video production and film studies, but for additional studio work and exhibitions,” Garber says. New artistic media, including increasingly important digital technology, and practice that now often blurs the lines between such previously distinct realms as studio art and video, mean that the Carpenter Center is truly “animate,” as Garber describes it, yet must simultaneously be respected as a major work of art in its own right.

Indeed, the Carpenter Center’s capacity as a generator of art as well as a home for art-making—a dual purpose that has characterized the building’s four decades—has led to perhaps the most exciting project of those that will occur before the end of 2004. French artist Pierre Huyghe, winner of the 2002 Hugo Boss Prize, is currently working on a multimedia installation that takes the Carpenter Center as its subject. He will focus on the paradoxes that emerged between the building’s design and its present form.

“Huyghe had particular interest in the Carpenter Center primarily because of the complexity of its program, not in terms of massing but in the complexity of activities it is meant to contain. I think that really intrigued him,” says Linda Norden, associate curator of contemporary art at the Fogg Musuem and co-organizer of the exhibition with art historian Scott Rothkopf. “He is attracted to an aspect of Le Corbusier’s utopianism…the disparity between some ideal or detail or piece of a program and how that gets worked out.”

Huyghe’s project, which will take place, at least in part, in the Harvard University Art Museums’s Sert Gallery on the third floor of the Carpenter Center, might potentially extend to the building itself. Norden notes that Huyghe “wants to do something that will really entail the site. He doesn’t want to bow down to the father.”

A practice such as Huyghe’s, which has made use of photography, film, video, sculpture, architecture, and new media, corresponds closely with the panorama one gets as he or she descends from the third floor landing, down the ramp to Prescott Street.

The Carpenter Center is rare in its status as a campus icon as well as an international architectural landmark. It is also rare as a building that gets, and deserves, its own anniversary celebration. But this is not a nostalgic celebration; instead, it embraces a masterwork while noting its flexibility towards adaptation and evolution over four decades.

—Staff writer Brian D. Goldstein can be reached at bgoldst@fas.harvard.edu. He is the co-curator of “VAC BOS: The Carpenter Center and Le Corbusier’s Synthesis of the Arts,” an exhibition held Spring 2004 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.