How fast the radical present becomes the historical past. This new-is-old transformation has struck again at Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard. The boldly sculpted reinforced-concrete building, the architect’s only realized project in North America and one of the final commissions before his death in 1965, turned 50 on May 28, two weeks before New York’s Museum of Modern Art would open its first major exhibition on the Swiss-born leader of the Modern movement. While time has proved the Carpenter Center’s worth and influence, it has underscored old shortcomings and bared new ones. To mark the anniversary, Harvard displayed fresh material that revealed the genesis of this utterly unconventional five-story structure.
“Dear Corbu,” the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), Josep Lluís Sert, wrote on January 23, 1957, urging his former employer to visit the United States. Harvard, Sert said, “can guarantee a grand reception; and from that there are chances that other things may develop.” That letter grew from a 1956 Harvard report on the visual arts and Sert’s desire to have Le Corbusier, fresh off the triumphant opening of Ronchamp chapel, fulfill the report’s vision of an innovative, interdisciplinary arts hub. The exchange led to a building that, for better and worse, presaged the global trend of “starchitecture.” With its slender pilotis, angled brises-soleil, and a diagonal pedestrian ramp that cleaved the structure and cracked open views onto flanking art studios and a wood shop, the Carpenter Center was unmistakably Le Corbusier’s. And that remains its strength and its weakness.