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.
Yet there is something ironic about going to an art museum as I did to do this sketch, walking past the French Impressionist paintings and the Roman sculptures and stopping instead to gaze out the window. It seems counterintuitive, even ridiculous, to look for art beyond the museum and ignore the work within it. Perhaps this is an issue of context—art in a museum is purely art, purely aesthetic. It demands to be observed, and the only way to interact with it is to consider it aesthetically. Art outside the museum, on the other hand, can be experienced purely aesthetically, but we can also interact with it practically, or even register it in passing, not as a distinct object but as an element of a larger visual scene.
So why have windows at all? Why not eliminate them and give the artwork full reign? Practically speaking, windows cause problems for museums. First of all, they take up wall space. Secondly, the admission of sunlight can damage artworks, a danger which is countered at the Harvard Art Museums through careful lowering and raising of the shades throughout the day. Despite the challenges they bring, the Harvard Art Museums were designed with many windows, large and small, facing toward the Carpenter Center. A ramp also runs from the museums’ Prescott Street entrance to the Carpenter Center itself.
While it may not serve as a piece of art, the window to the Carpenter Center is as an important acknowledgement of the world outside the museum. It serves as a portal from a building concerned with displaying finished works of art to a building concerned with creating them. The effect is to put that process of creation on view in the museum. This is exaggerated by Le Corbusier’s design for the Carpenter Center itself, which aims to put the creative process on display. A central ramp begins outside the building and moves through the center, drawing in the casual observer and inviting them to wander along the ramp and to stroll past the galleries to watch the artists at work.
Museums emphasize works of art by displaying them in isolation from the world around them, pieces of visual experience that seem untouchable and perhaps even immortal, removed from the world beyond the museum. The windows to the Carpenter Center are reminders that the pieces in the museum did not begin their existence there. They were created by living, breathing artists, who moved through the world as they worked. These works developed and changed within the studio, or perhaps even outside on the street or in a field. Though seemingly isolated by the museum, each piece of art, just like Le Corbusier’s building, is also a product and part of the everyday world.
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