It’s easy to look for beauty inside a museum, but sometimes difficult to find it outside. It is easy to miss beauty as you pass it on the street on your way to class on a foggy Monday morning, or bury your face in a textbook in the library the night before a big midterm. Sketching helps me find that sort of easy-to-miss beauty. It forces me to notice things, to appreciate them aesthetically rather than just practically, and then to stop and stare, and to study them more closely. It helps me, in other words, to look at places, people, and things in a manner similar to the way I look at art. But this comparison only goes so far.
This is a sketch of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts from the window of the Harvard Art Museums. The Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only North American building, is home to the art studios at the college. The architecture of the Carpenter Center itself holds artistic value. Moreover, the view of the Carpenter Center through the window has much in common with a painting hanging in a museum. The window frame parallels the picture frame, capturing an image within. The window, like a painting, is a rectangle of light, shape, and color that interrupts the dark wall of the museum. And, with the busy area at the bottom and open space where the sky fills the frame to the top, the view from the window could easily have been a conscious composition. The Carpenter Center, or at least this view of it, hangs on display at the museum like a picture or painting.
The interior and exterior of the Qube, Quincy House’s library, are in some ways strikingly different. The inside is colorful, homey, delicate, and decorative. Couches and armchairs are scattered across the space. The floor is covered with ornate rugs and a glass case displays intricate architectural models. A geometric chandelier hangs above and a spiral staircase ascends from the ground floor to the balcony level.
The exterior, on the other hand, is relatively plain and aesthetically simple. Aside from the columns that elevate it from the ground, the only shapes in the facades are rectangles, from the form of the building to the windows to the bricks themselves. Unlike the multi-colored interior, the facade is primarily red and white. The facade’s austere simplicity contrasts with the interior’s playfulness.
As I walk through art museums, I often notice half-colored canvases and partial figure drawings, placed prominently in frames beside drawings and paintings that are more obviously complete. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” The exhibition explored the question of why we label some artwork unfinished, categorizing artwork as either pieces whose process was halted by some sort of accident or pieces that are purposely constructed with an incomplete aesthetic — in other words, finished in an unfinished way.
The second category finds close parallels in architecture. An “unfinished” aesthetic is not uncommon in modern and contemporary buildings. Even on Harvard’s campus, for example, Mather House trumpets rather than conceals its construction, its unfinished look characteristic of Brutalist architectural style.
The walls and fences of Harvard Yard are punctuated by gates. Many of these are topped with complex patterns of grillwork, at the center of which sit the years of the classes that donated them. The grillwork stands out, almost in silhouette, as dark, sharp lines and shapes against the bright sky.
Gates, by nature, are viewed from two directions: the outside as you enter and the inside as you exit. Grillwork can also be viewed from both sides, but one side is the reverse of the other. With abstract and symmetrical shapes, this duality works nicely. However, a number that looks right from one side will look backwards from the other. Therefore, in designing a gate with a number, the artist must favor one viewpoint over another. As I walked around the Yard, I found that many of the gates were oriented outwards, so that from the inside the numbers appeared backwards. In some cases, a flat background allowed the artist to include two sets of numbers, one oriented inward and one outward. While this solves the problem of the backwards numerals, it sacrifices the stark and beautiful contrast of the numbers against the backdrop of the sky. In no cases were the numbers oriented inwards, so that to view them from the outside was to view them backwards.