Making Room for Art

Construction of Loeb Drama Center and the Carpenter Center elevates the role of creation on campus

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Kevin H. Lin

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When David L. Szanton ’60 arrived on the Harvard campus as a freshman in the fall of 1956, he found the school inhospitable to his passion for sculpture, literally. “There wasn’t any space at all for people interested in art,” he said. “There was nowhere we could work.” Studios were reserved for students studying architectural science; students who wanted to create were often forced to use their dorm rooms as ateliers. Frustrated with the lack of space, Szanton approached a dean who conceded a two-room apartment in Dudley House. There, Szanton and a dozen other students could paint and sculpt. The apartment was hardly set up as a studio, but, Szanton said, “there was nothing else on campus.”

By the time Szanton graduated, the University had embarked upon two large-scale constructions to make room for the arts at Harvard—the Loeb Drama Center, begun in 1959 and completed in 1960 and the Carpenter Center, planned in 1959 and completed in 1963. These two projects, part of an overall plan to increase the presence of art on campus, gave student artists the space to thrive. But as the school built homes for the arts in brick and concrete, some students feared that creativity itself, under the University’s watch, would be rigidified.

BUILDING CREATIVE SPACE

Both the Loeb Drama Center and the Carpenter Center stemmed from an administrative push to increase the presence of the arts on the Harvard Campus. “At the time, Harvard did not have much for actual, working, creative activity,” said Eduard F. Sekler, Osgood Hooker Professor of Visual Art, Emeritus and former co-director of the Carpenter Center.

Upon his arrival at Harvard, President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 took up an existing initiative to review the role of the arts within the University. He created a five-person visiting committee, chaired by John Nicholas Brown ’22, in order to investigate how the arts might become more integrated into Harvard’s education.

The committee’s recommendations for Harvard, which came to be known as the Brown Report, were released in 1955 and stipulated a wide-ranging series of reforms. Comparing Harvard to a number of peer institutions, the committee developed specific plans for the school, from the small-scale name change of the Department of Art History to the ground-breaking call for an increased number of theater courses and a design department. These changes would “give the experience of art its rightful place in liberal education,” wrote Pusey in the report. To accompany the new curriculum, the committee proposed new classrooms—a “Design Center” and a “Theater.”

Within two years, the school had obtained funds for both projects. In June of 1957, New York investment broker James L. Loeb gave $1,000,000 for the future drama center; four months later Mr. and Mrs. Alfred St. Vrain Carpenter, owners of pear orchards in Oregon, gave $1,500,000 to “completely underwrite a Harvard Visual Arts Center,” according to the Crimson. Close in date, the two gifts were also close in their intent—the Carpenters had originally wanted to donate to the theater until their son, Harlow Carpenter ’50, a graduate of the Graduate School of Design, convinced them to direct the money toward the visual arts.

The report made clear that these changes were intended to increase the role of visual learning within the liberal arts curriculum, not turn Harvard into a trade school for future artists or actors. It also stressed visual literacy over practical skill, claiming that without “the twin arts of perception and discrimination” the educated man might be overly swayed by “photograph, the billboard, the cinema, the picture magazine, and now television.”

“The idea,” Sekler said, “was that for Harvard undergraduates, it was as important to be visually literate as to be literate in language. We did not pretend that we were educating future artists. It is ridiculous to think that every undergraduate could become a professional.”

This emphasis quelled the fears of those faculty members who were concerned that the school would become too pre-professional. “There was a lingering suspicion about teaching people the importance of practicing these arts as ways to gain knowledge of the world,” said Robert G. Gardner ’48, former Coordinator of Light and Communication and co-director of the Carpenter Center. Drama was subject to the same scrutiny. “Traditional faculty feared that this was the first step on the road to perdition,” said Joel F. Henning ’61, former President of the Harvard Dramatic Club.

CURTAINS UP ON THE LOEB

Harvard theater was thriving when the Loeb took the stage. “There was theater all over the place and it was pretty damn good,” said Arthur L. Kopit ’59, a playwright and Tony Award winner. Fourty-five plays had been performed in 1957 alone, productions ranging from student-written work to Shakespeare. Professional critics frequently visited from Boston to comment on current productions.

This theatrical work was entirely student driven. Students directed, acted and produced—with no supervision and little funding form the University. “Until the Loeb came into existence, we had to raise the money and rent the props. We had to pay to rent lighting and costumes. We had no support from the university, other than being allowed to use various physical facilities,” Henning said.

The facilities, too, offered little more than room to act. The two existing performing spaces—the Agassiz Theater and Sanders Theater—were auditoriums rather than theaters. They lacked any mechanical support, such as lighting, for theatrical productions. Most plays happened in dining halls. “There was no technology,” Kopit said. “It was very primitive.”

So when plans to build the Loeb got underway, it seemed that the Harvard theater scene would finally get exactly what it had been missing: a theater. The Loeb, designed by Hugh Stubbins, was to be a state of the art facility, technologically advanced and innovatively designed. The flexible main stage allowed for three different set-ups, an Elizabethan theater, a proscenium and a theater in the round. The experimental theater next door was exciting in its originality.

The Drama Center was novel down to the details. “The Loeb was one of the first theaters in the country designed to have a black box theater,” said Henning. The lighting board would be computerized—something students had never seen before, said John D. Hancock ’61. “It was a very fine theater for its time,” Kopit said.

CORBUSIER’S CONCRETE VISION

At the same time, the school was on the lookout for an architect to build the Design Center. Jose Luis Sert, Dean of the Graduate School of Design, suggested Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect.

The choice was a bold one. By 1958, Le Corbusier had already established himself as one of the foremost architects of the 20th century. “There is no Corbusier building in this country, which is as strange as if there were no Picasso paintings in our museums,” Sert wrote in a letter. But the architect was not unequivocally loved. The Crimson called Le Corbusier “controversial” and wrote that the choice “dramatized the importance it attaches to the new Visual Arts Center in the most effective way possible.” “It was very admirable that Harvard picked him,” said Nicholas Fox Weber, author of “Le Corbusier: A Life.”

As it made a statement with its forward design, the Carpenter Center was also to provide the necessary space for students in the upcoming Visual Studies program. The building was filled with studios specifically designed for the working artist. The wide windows would provide a soft light for painting, shielded from direct sunlight by concrete breakers. In the exhibition space on the first floor, students could present their work and academics could teach by showing, Sekler described. “It’s the kind of studio space that any creative person can walk into and mess up the canvas and try things,” said Yoshiaki Shimizu ’63, now an art history professor at Princeton University. There was room to fool around. “The Carpenter Center,” said Szanton, “is 40 times the size of our two little rooms in Dudley House.”

With its distinctive design and bold concrete, the architecture was intended to tie the arts into the rest of the campus, according to Sekler. The long ramp passing through the building, a signature trait of Le Corbusier’s architecture, would allow the students to experience the building even as they walked to class, Sekler said. “‘Ramps connect, stairs divide’—it was one of his sayings,” Sekler said.

THEN AND NOW

While these changes provided the long-needed room for artistic development at Harvard, undergraduates were wary that the school’s interest in student creativity would actually hamper it. “We were somewhat afraid that the interest in theater on the part of the university would lead to control and the marginalization of student directed shows. On the other hand, after working in Agassiz, who would not want a chance at those facilities that the Loeb offered?” said Julius L. Novick ’60, a long-time theater critic and Professor of Dramatic Studies.

Plays for the Loeb would have to be faculty approved, a bureaucratic barrier that students had not encountered before. “Once you had a major space that cost a lot of money, you had to have decision making on a faculty level,” Kopit said. Obtaining space in the Loeb depended on one’s relationship with faculty members, notably Robert Chapman, the director.

“It was his facility,” explained Hancock. The Crimson complained that productions often arose from, “closed-session bargaining between the Faculty committee and certain favored undergraduates.”

As curricular changes tested educational approaches to artistic creativity, some students feared that the school’s commitment to a well-rounded education would compromise their ability to make art. “When an institution begins to encourage artistic activity, it encourages amateurs. If you really want to create, you do it on your own,” said Shimizu.

Now, 50 years later, Harvard continues to wrestle with its uneasy relationship with the arts. The Task Force on the Arts, appointed in 2007, is a latterday incarnation of the Brown Report. Its task: to discover how Harvard may better nourish creative activity. As students and faculty discuss how the school might foster the arts, they revive a conversation decades old. “The fundamental issue then is what should the role of the arts be within the academy,” Hancock said. “It is still an issue today.”

—Staff writer Madeleine M. Schwartz can be reached at mschwart@fas.harvard.edu.