Carpenter Center turns 50

Photo: Balthazar Korab Photography

by Noam Dvir

The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, built in 1963, is Le Corbusier’s only building in North America and one of the last to be completed during his lifetime. It’s a relatively irregular building in the context of the campus. The concrete facades, the spiraling ramps and the large glass openings made it a prominent ambassador of modernity in what was otherwise a classical red brick landscape. 

Eduard Sekler, Osgood Hooker professor of visual art emeritus, was the first director of the Center. He still remembers the unsubtle reactions among the Harvard community to Le Corbusier’s bold statement. “It was not necessarily welcomed in the university, some of the more traditional professors thought it was a disgrace,” says Sekler, “it was completely different to the environment.” 

This spring the Carpenter Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The event is marked with lectures, public talks, and a new exhibition at the GSD’s Loeb library: “VAC BOS: The GSD and the Making of Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center.” The key exhibit is the original drawings for the center: admirable plans, elevations and sections signed by Le Corbusier himself. This is the first time the drawings are exposed to the public; for the past 50 years they have been kept secured in the Harvard archive, allowing them to remain in superb condition. 

The primary initiative for the constitution of the Center came in 1956, upon the completion of Harvard’s report on the Visual Arts. Former GSD Dean Josep Lluis Sert saw a landmark opportunity for a modernist architect to realize the report’s recommendation for a new VA Center. He contacted Le Corbusier, his former employer, and asked us to present a design to the university. After much debate a site was chosen between Quincy and Prescott streets, adjacent to the Harvard Yard. 

“The Center laid bare the importance of the GSD, its Dean, Sert and its professors, namely Eduard Sekler, in introducing modernist architecture to the campus,” says PhD candidate and curator Peter Christensen. “It was first and foremost a polemical statement about campus planning and how the university could be an evolving organism whose architecture revealed changing architectural values.”

The building drew incredible attention from the day it opened. Architects from all across the US were finally able to “access” one of Le Corbusier’s works in their home country. More recently, the coherent design of the Carpenter Center was under threat when a renovation plan for the adjacent Fogg museum called to chop off one of the platforms in order to integrate the two buildings. GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, Professor Sekler and Professor Toshiko Mori effectively lobbied the university to reconfigure this scheme so as to preserve the building as much as possible. 

Related Stories

Getting to 50,” Harvard Gazette, April 9, 2013.
Vive le Corbusier!Harvard Magazine, March-April 2013.

Noam Dvir (MAUD ’14) is a journalist and critic covering the architecture world for the past decade. He contributes regularly to 
Haaretz newspaper in Tel Aviv and various design magazines including Frame and PIN-UP