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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

‘Sertified’ Admirers Fete Architect

By Rachel B. Nearnberg, Contributing Writer

Architects and academics celebrated Josep Lluìs Sert, the man who designed some of the University’s boldest and biggest modern buildings—and also brought some of the 20th century’s most renowned architects to Harvard’s halls—last night at the Graduate School of Design (GSD).

A diminutive man known for his sharp eye and affinity for bow ties, Sert, who served as dean of the GSD from 1953 to 1969, led an elite group of European modernist architects and designed Peabody Terrace, the Science Center and the Holyoke Center.

Last night, Sert’s admirers, students and colleagues gathered to remember his life on the day that would have been his 100th birthday. The celebration kicked off a three-day symposium on Sert’s life and work.

“We are celebrating Sert’s half-century of taking command of and changing Harvard University forever,” said Jorge Silvetti, Robinson, Jr. Professor in Architecture. “Some consider him the paradigm of the architect teacher that many aspire to and few match.”

The crowd also toasted Eduard F. Sekler, a close colleague of Sert’s and an emeritus professor, on his 50th anniversary of teaching at Harvard.

Sekler, who flew in from Vienna to give the keynote speech about Sert, was the first director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and returns to Cambridge each spring to teach at the GSD.

“During this symposium, you will learn very much about Sert through distinguished speakers,” he said. “But very few people will speak about the way he touched many people’s lives, the way he touched mine.”

Sekler is the first director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and returns to Harvard each spring to teach at the GSD. Working with Sert, Sekler developed the GSD’s curriculum on the history of architecture, and last night he credited Sert for creating the urban development program at GSD.

“Sert introduced urban design as an academic discipline, and other universities followed,” explained Sekler.

Sekler commented on Sert’s philosophies and teaching methods.

“He took his students as a teacher very seriously,” he said. “Sert had a keen eye for recognizing talent in students and never feared to encourage them. He wanted students to understand his principles, but not to imitate his forms.”

Sekler said Sert believed that the mission of architecture is to create shared space.

“I remember well that often he would ask ‘how do the people live better in what you have designed here?’” Sekler said.

Sekler also spoke of the last time he saw Sert before he returned to his native Spain.

“When I last saw him the evening before his final return to Spain, he was sitting on the sofa, and he spoke about the idea of shared space. He said, ‘you are the last one left to keep these ideas alive.’ I promised I would do my best, and I hope I have not failed him,” Sekler said.

Joseph Wasserman ’53, who graduated from the GSD in 1957, was one of Sert’s first students at Harvard.

“I am a ‘Sertified’ architect, a great devotee,” Wasserman said. “I found him an extraordinary personality, and as a young person getting started. I found that his approach to design and urban design has held me in a really good stead for a lifetime of my own work.”

The symposium is just one of a series of tributes to Sert this fall.

“Josep Lluìs Sert: The Architect of Urban Design 1953-1969” is showing in the Gund Hall Gallery through Nov. 19. “Josep Lluìs Sert: Architect to the Arts II” is showing in the Sert Gallery of the Carpenter Center through Dec. 14.

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