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Reshaping Harvard’s Landscape

Examining Sert’s Modernist Architectural Legacy

By Christian A. Stayner, Contributing Writer

As the architect of many of Harvard’s most monumental and prominent buildings, Josep Lluís Sert remains controversial even 20 years after his death.

Around Cambridge, Sert’s use of beton brut—French for “raw concrete”—and his unmistakable Modernist style continue to raise the ire of the red-brick-and-ivy set, as many of his projects did when they were first built. The designer of Peabody Terrace, the Holyoke Center, the Science Center and the Carpenter Center (with Le Corbusier as lead designer), Sert occupies the role of Harvard’s most influential architect.

The organizers of “Josep Lluís Sert: The Architect of Urban Design, 1953-1969” and “Josep Lluís Sert: Architect to the Arts II,” concurrent exhibitions now on display in Gund Hall and the Carpenter Center’s Sert Gallery, believe that Sert’s overall influence on the shaping of urban design is greater than the sum of his individual Harvard commissions.

“There’s a reliability in his work, which is not a very glamorous adjective,” says Mary Daniels, curator of the retrospective with Inés Zalduendo. In addition to his work as an architect, Sert was also an educational innovator, creating the first formal urban design program while dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) during the 1950s and 60s.

Though Sert’s work has been largely neglected, contemporary issues both at Harvard and abroad make this current retrospective timely. Recent attention to the physical reconstruction of Kabul and Baghdad by urban planners, as well as the ongoing row over Harvard’s development plans in Riverside neighborhood, near Peabody Terrace, are illuminated by the exhibitions.

Émigré to Architect

Born in 1902 to wealthy and well-connected Barcelona family—his uncle, Güell, was the patron of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí—Sert would flee first from fascism in Spain and then again from Paris with the onset of World War II.

“He spanned a rotten century,” remarks Daniels.

Well-connected in Catalan intellectual circles, Sert’s first major commission was Spain’s pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. “As the product of a nation at war with itself it is a miracle,” the Carpenter Center display quotes one publication as saying at the time of the building’s inauguration. As a piece of architecture, it was a mild success. At the end of the Exposition, Sert’s design would largely go forgotten, its fame overshadowed by the mural it housed—Picasso’s famous “Guernica.”

An active member of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM)—an informal, avant-garde association of European architects—Sert became involved in an international effort to strengthen urban centers in the face of a trend towards the abandoning of urban cores. This was seen as a problem both in Europe after the physical devastation of World War II and in the U.S. with ever increasing suburbanization due to the automobile. The group sought to create “new ‘hearts of the city’ that would become unique centers of collective vitality,” says Daniels. The CIAM plazas, high-rise housing, pedestrian paths and recreational spaces would become important and recurring elements in Sert’s own work.

The need for a new discipline to address the physical dimension of rebuilding post-WWII urban centers brought about the first formal program in urban design at Harvard, and Sert was brought in by the dean of design school. In his time at the Graduate School of Design Sert would create an interdisciplinary program to combine cultural and aesthetic concerns with politics and civil engineering. He would also use his own practice—projects he did for the governments of Cuba, Colombia and Brazil—to provide a model for an emerging field. Professionally and pedagogically, Sert was in the right place at the right time.

“This was the period when there was actually federal and governmental money available for urban renewal,” adds Daniels. “He arrived when there was bankrolling available for ambitious schemes.”

While completing some of the largest design commissions of the time, Sert was also a professor and administrator back in Cambridge. Later, when Sert assumed the deanship, the Design School’s students and faculty doubled in number. He would also initiate a move from the Neoclassical Robinson Hall, located in the Yard, to a proposed Modern building to be constructed across the street from Memorial Hall.

Sert and the University

“Boston has to change with the times,” Sert said in a 1964 Boston Globe article. And he was going to change it—beginning with Harvard.

When a wave of political revolutions effectively ended many of his urban design commissions in Latin America, the scale of Sert’s projects would diminish while retaining their grand social aims. With the construction of the Holyoke Center in 1958, Sert would unofficially assume the role of the University’s architect. His most visible commission at Harvard, the massive Science Center, completed in 1973, would remain Harvard’s largest building until the opening of the Medical School’s New Research Building just last month.

Amid the student protests and social idealism of the sixties, avant-garde architects such as Sert saw the opportunity to use the University as a living laboratory. The most visible of these projects, a darling of Modernist architects, was an approach to building with pre-fabricated components. The modular concrete panels and brightly colored brise-soleil baffles of the Holyoke Center are indicative of Sert’s larger social goals of implementing low-cost building techniques for housing.

“[The 60s] was a period in which there was much less resistance to Modern architecture,” says Daniels of the “golden age” of architecture in Cambridge.

Not all of Harvard had the Modernist bug. The Crimson published editorials blasting the new Holyoke Center. Riverside residents later decried a “lack of sunlight” due to the Peabody towers. To an extent, the success of a work of architecture can be gauged by the strength of opinions it evokes—positive and negative. For many, Sert’s buildings are distinctly urban, Modernist and concrete and recall images of brutalist “Soviet bloc” housing. Indeed, Sert’s Harvard projects were too cosmopolitan for Cambridge in the 1950s and 60s—and probably still are today.

Putting aesthetics aside, even Daniels agrees that Sert’s buildings, with their use of concrete and large plazas, are “absolutely unfit for New England weather conditions.”

In the end, Sert’s influence on the practice of architecture is difficult to measure. Like many architects, little has been written on his life and work. This is a shame, for Sert’s work is, at first sight, aesthetically difficult to understand half a century later.

The two exhibits provide little general background for the lay viewer. Even though the descriptions of each project are clear and articulate, they assume a basic knowledge of these projects’ historical and architectural context.

With no fewer than 275 objects on display, this is one of the most comprehensive and important exhibitions on Modern architecture Boston has seen in the past few years. For a Harvard audience that is intimately familiar with much of Sert’s work, presenting these buildings anew is not easy. While the exhibitions are somewhat traditional in approach, the objects are varied in type (from tiny sketches to large-scale blueprints) and quite handsomely displayed. In the Gund Hall gallery, the curators make good use of a difficult space in which to present an historical narrative.

As an architect, Sert proves to be difficult to locate: his dogmatic, CIAM-influenced urban planning seems antithetical to his interest in integrating the arts with architecture. While CIAM projects were ultimately the sites for murals and public sculpture, there is little exploration of this theme in the two exhibits.

Indeed, one of the treats of the exhibition is Sert’s personal art collection on view at the Carpenter Center exhibit. Works by his friends Miró, Calder, Léger and Nicola provide a fascinating way to understanding Sert’s own 60s-era aesthetic.

But the artworks are displayed separately from photographs and plans of Sert’s own house, which are on view at the design school. For an architect so interested in synthesizing the plastic arts with architecture and urban design—especially within his own home—this curatorial move is a bit puzzling.

Sert’s Legacy

In reassessing Sert’s importance in architecture and urban design, his legacy may not lie in developing a widely-appealing aesthetic, but in an ability to conceive and execute such ambitious buildings.

Sert’s architecture helped to inaugurate a new age for Harvard. Buildings such as Peabody Terrace and the Holyoke Center were a radical departure from Harvard’s 300-year-long obsession with red-brick.

As institutional trophies, Sert’s buildings proclaimed Harvard’s modernization to the world. After all, it took a great university to build great monuments to education.

“[The Peabody Terrace towers] were among the first tall buildings in Boston,” says Zalduendo, herself an architect.

Occupying the site of a former factory along the Charles River, Peabody Terrace is a Modernist icon.

It is also one of the most hated buildings in Boston. Completed 40 years ago, it remains one of the largest hurdles in Harvard’s desire to further develop the Cambridge campus.

However, the curators of the Sert exhibitions feel that returning to Sert’s original intentions can be illuminating for Harvard and Cambridge alike.

“For many people it can be very interesting to see how these arguments recur and how so many of the ambiguities still exist,” Daniels says.

—“Josep Lluís Sert: The Architect of Urban Design, 1953-1969,” from Oct. 6 to Nov. 19 at the Gund Hall Gallery, 48 Quincy St.; and “Josep Lluìs Sert: Architect to the Arts II,” from Sept. 13 to Dec.14 at the Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy St.

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