The ugliest building on Harvard’s campus just might be its most beautiful

The World

Fifty years ago, a genius architect with the pseudonym “Le Corbusier" completed a building designed to inspire art at Harvard University. Le Corbusier turned the idea of a building inside out. A curving concrete entry ramp lifted students skyward from the street, bisecting the space. Classrooms appeared to float above the famed Harvard Yard. And natural light illuminated its interior. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts stood out among the staid red bricks of its neighbors. It was new, modern, imaginative and interesting.

Many at Harvard hated it.

Fifty years later, it's easy to see why:

At first glance, the Carpenter Center has all the warmth of a highway on-ramp. Rainwater runoff has stained parts of its concrete exterior a sort of sewage black. The famed curving entry ramp is too steep for wheelchairs – it was built in a time before universal access was a cultural norm. And it casts shadows upon the ground that seem perfect places for muggers to lurk.

Honestly, those were my first impressions of the building. But a friend who works in public art told me I was missing out on something spectacular. So I set about trying to understand the Carpenter Center to answer a simple question: Was I really missing something?

The short answer, yes.

The longer answer takes some time. But it's worth the trip. You learn more about a 19th century visionary, how he came to design the building, and the critical response to the finished product. Slowly, elements of the building reveal themselves. You start to understand why the Carpenter Center succeeded in doing exactly what it was meant to do for the last half century, even if most don't ever notice or realize its success. It includes a beautiful side story about its design that will make most anyone fall for Le Corbusier. And just when we think the story is over, a modern day architect swoops in as a hero.

So let’s start with a quick primer on Le Corbusier: The man was a genius. That's a fact. He led the modernist movement in architecture. He found new ways of shaping space. His masterpieces include the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut and the monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette. 

"Le Corbusier was the leading proponent of modern architecture in the broadest sense of the word," says Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and principal at the global architecture and planning firm NBBJ. "He was the guy. He. Was. The. Guy."

I think it's a safe bet that most Americans know Frank Lloyd Wright as The Guy in modern architecture. But Krieger says that's not the same across the world. The man at the top is arguably Le Corbusier. One reason for his relative obscurity among Americans could be that there is only one of his buildings in all of North America: the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

That, in itself, is good enough reason to appreciate the building just a little more. But I was seeking love. And that took me back to 1956. That's the year the Committee on the Visual Arts at Harvard University issued a report arguing about its importance to the community and students.

"There are many domains of interest in the visual kingdom," the report stated. "Education and human development uncover successive trends in the course of man's experience; many objects passed over casually as of no significance at one moment assume importance the next. The study of the visual arts unlocks the doors between levels."

The report went on to press the university for a space where students could unlock those doors.

"The committee recommends, therefore, the construction of a Design Center… We shall avoid, as far as possible, discussion of details of architecture… We do believe that the Design Center and the Theatre should be expressive of the finest contemporary American architecture."

In the end, it didn't go to a contemporary American architect.

The Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, says the decision to go global has to do with one man: Jose Lluis Sert. At the time, he was dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. He had the idea to bring in one of the world's great architects to create the building, a master he previously worked under, Le Corbusier. Harvard Gazette staff writer Corydon Ireland wrote that Sert, "persuaded Le Corbusier—still stinging from not getting the commission for the United Nations building—to design the landmark arts center for Harvard."

After much negotiating, Le Corbusier accepted the commission.

"It was an early example of 'starchitecture,'" says Kamin. "The building would be a feather in Harvard's cap."

Or that was the idea. The end product was something much different.

Kamin and Krieger say the complaints hurled at the building fifty years ago are similar to the complaints hurled at it today: the complaints about its concrete; the complaints about its dark, ground-level entrance. And the complaints about its overall look clashing with the classic Georgian Revival structures surrounding it, intruding on the red brick and ivy leafed “aesthetic brand” some at Harvard wish to convey to the wider world.

Kamin says time has done little to soften the sharp edges of the building and its cramped feel. The shock of the building went away, as people get used to most anything, but the building just doesn't work with the space.

"It's an uncompromising, modernist statement," he says. "And its exterior masks the real beauty of the building: its interior.”

This is where architects, critics, and professors all seem to agree – as much as architects, critics, and professors can uniformly agree on anything. The interior works. Eduard Sekler, now in his 90s, was the first director of the Carpenter Center. He says that while many professors hated the building, there were many students who absolutely wanted to have a class inside. Le Corbusier used space and light in a wonderful way. You immediately feel comfortable the moment you step inside.

“The students just loved to go there,” says Sekler. “And in the seminar room they said they felt happier than in other teaching rooms in the university.”

Therein lies the magic of the Carpenter Center. For all the complaints about its design from red brick traditionalists, the building accomplished exactly what the visual arts committee hoped it would in that 1956 report: be a place where students can unlock the doors of the visual kingdom.

As Sekler would say, you just need to take the time to go through the building. It’s more than a monotonous hunk of concrete with glass openings. Everything in the building has a purpose. To illustrate this, he points to the story behind the building’s most dominant feature: the curving concrete entry ramp. It’s the story that has morphed into a folklore of sorts, and it's a story that made me, and others, learn to love Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center.

It goes like this: For years students used the site as a shortcut between classes, and in the case of high school kids from Cambridge Ringe and Latin, a shortcut between their school and the subway. When Le Corbusier toured the site he noticed the students using the space to save time. He found it wonderful. So he incorporated the pathway into his plans. He dreamed up a ramp that would take the students from Harvard Yard and carry them upward, all the way through the center of the building, and down gracefully to the other side. The ramp accomplished two things: 1. People could move through the block as they’ve always moved. 2. As people pass through the center of the building they’d be exposed to the world of visual arts. The inside of his building would contain giant windows, exposing the classrooms to the outside world. (Krieger adds this was especially important for the high school kids, as such a world isn't all that open to them.)

Beautiful, right?

It never came to be.

The plans changed. Instead of gracefully leading pedestrians across the block, the ramp was altered, making is less inviting. High school kids never really used it as a shortcut. Most all its intent was lost.

Le Corbusier was said to be upset over this, and other changes. He didn’t attend the building's opening in 1962, although, he was also old and in poor health at the time. He died in 1965 at the age of 77.

That’s where the story ends…

…But that’s not the end of this story.

For something is happening at that very street corner. Concrete trucks are clogging traffic. Construction workers are sweating through their jeans. And cranes are lifting beams and building materials skyward. The Fogg Art Museum is getting a complete overhaul. And leading the charge is a modern day star of the architecture world, Renzo Piano. The building he’s creating is cut almost in two. A classical half faces Harvard Yard and a modern design faces the other direction. The new building will dwarf the Carpenter Center.

But Piano is careful to show his respect.

In a nod to the unrealized past, Piano has resuscitated Le Corbusier’s ramp idea. It will start at the street corner and gracefully lift people up toward the doors of the museum where they can choose to enter or continue upward, up toward a building where natural light has illuminated artistic endeavors for decades; up toward classrooms that float above Harvard Yard; up toward the creation of a contemporary architectural genius; up, up, and up toward a building designed to inspire all. Or at the very least, it’s a shortcut to the T.

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