The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts cuts a striking figure next to the traditional, red-brick charisma of Harvard Yard. Made entirely of unfinished concrete, the Center features sharp edges and sloping curves that somehow cohere into a neat structure tucked in between the Fogg Art Museum and the Faculty Club.
“Carpenter Center has no real front or back—its axis [is] diagonal to Quincy Street and entrance buried in the middle,” wrote one Crimson reporter in a 1967 feature about Harvard’s architecture.
Today, the Center is home to the Visual and Environmental Studies concentration, exhibition spaces, and the Harvard Film Archive.
Allotted a cramped, uneven space between Quincy and Prescott streets, the Center posed a challenge to design. This tremendous task was undertaken by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier—a celebrated modern architect and a former mentor to Josep Lluís Sert, who was then dean of the Graduate School of Design. Le Corbusier collaborated with Chilean architect Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente on the project.
The Center first opened to University students in 1963, a year after its completion, and was set to house Harvard’s nascent visual arts program. The class of 1968, which arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1964, was one of the first to take advantage of this facility and the spaces and equipment it offered.
Alex Krieger, a professor at the Graduate School of Design, said the avant-garde architecture and hands-on artmaking ethos “would have been a little shocking” for the first students to take classes in the Carpenter Center. Krieger was a friend and colleague to Eduard F. Sekler, the first director of the Center.
“As you enter the building, walk past it on the sidewalks, and especially when you use that curious ramp, you are aware of art,” Krieger said. “You can observe it all.”
Faced with a stagnating department that was being outpaced by an explosive American art scene, Harvard decided to revamp its art program in 1954. The University assembled a committee of professors and art professionals to direct the future of the arts at Harvard.
Two years later, the committee released a report on the state of the visual arts at Harvard, and urged the University to “reëxamine its relation to the artist”—in particular, the artists on its campus.
“It is a curious paradox that, highly as the university esteems the work of art, it tends to take a dim view of the artist as an intellectual,” the committee’s report read.
The committee hoped to revive Harvard’s waning Department of Fine Arts by splitting it in two. The existing Department of Fine Arts was renamed History of Art because of its historical focus, while the proposed new program would champion the practice of art.
The committee anticipated that “the new Design Center, then, would stand as Harvard’s visible recognition of the importance of the living artist.” The forward-looking Design Center—which would later be named the Carpenter Center after its donors—would be a complement to the historically oriented Fogg Museum.
“Photography, film and television—whether used by the artist or by the advertising agent—can no longer be treated as marginal in a university that assumes its full responsibility towards its own academic community,” Sekler wrote in a Statement of Purposes for the building in 1963.
The steps first outlined by the committee were just the beginning, Sekler wrote. They were “the seeds of a programme with a potential for growth at a rate which is hard to foretell.”
And in the spirit of modern architecture, the form of the building followed its function. Krieger said then-University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 “wanted to bring it into the twentieth century as opposed to remaining in an ancient tradition.”
“That included bringing the arts and contemporary artists to the University. It also had to do with bringing modern architecture,” Krieger said.
In Le Corbusier, Harvard found a modern architect suitable to its modern program.
With its sweeping curves and geometrical heaps of reinforced concrete, the Carpenter Center—the only building in the U.S. designed by Le Corbusier—has not only served as a facility for artistic production, but is also a work of art in its own right.
In Feb. 1963, a 45-member group of Harvard faculty and others drafted and signed a letter addressed to the Corporation lauding the new arts center and its chief architect.
“In selecting Le Corbusier you chose not a safe and familiar figure but the man you considered the most distinguished designer anywhere,” the letter read. “As a result, Harvard has been rewarded with a daring and distinguished building.”
Marking a radical departure from the puritan symmetry of the majority of the buildings in Harvard Yard, the Carpenter Center presents an asymmetrical network of pillars, platforms, and geometric frames bisected by a long, winding ramp.
An article published by Time Magazine in March of 1963 titled “The Hand and the Head” celebrated the Center’s architectural novelty in Cambridge. “Like all of Le Corbusier’s later masterpieces, the building is as free as sculpture. From every angle it offers fresh surprises,” the article read.
On both the inside and the outside, the entire structure is unified by its substance: untreated, unpainted concrete—an important material in both modern architecture and Le Corbusier’s artistic career.
Sekler wrote about Le Corbusier’s building in “Connection,” Harvard’s former journal of design, in 1963. The Carpenter Center, “by its mere presence, should inspire and stimulate visual awareness and creative activity,” Sekler wrote. “In bringing together ‘the hand and the head’,” the building would achieve its artistic unity.
At the $1,500,000 center’s dedication in May 1963, donor Alfred V. Carpenter told attendees, “This is your building— use it and enjoy it.”
While the committee that envisioned the Carpenter Center had philosophical concerns about teaching art, they also had practical ones. Committee members lamented “the relative lack of interest from Harvard College in practice courses offered by the Department of Fine Arts.”
“Among the results of our recommendations, we should expect an increase in participation by Harvard undergraduates in the visual arts program,” they wrote.
This goal of increasing engagement with art is visible in the design of the building: a ramp which bisects the entire building and reaches towards those on the outside.
“The ramp links the building in a very special way to its surroundings, into which it extends as in a welcoming gesture,” Sekler wrote.
Krieger said the empty space where the Carpenter Center now stands used to be a shortcut for Cambridge Rindge and Latin students between the Harvard Square T stop and the school. When he observed this existing function of the space, Le Corbusier decided to embellish the shortcut rather than obstructing it with his building, Krieger said.
“Now the walk wouldn’t be an empty piece of land against the blank walls of Harvard buildings,” Krieger said. “The ramp would allow kids to enter into the artistic world.”