Looking Back

Inside the Carpenter Center

By: Leah Triplett

Early photograph of third floor (currently the painting classroom), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Images courtesy of Dan Lopez.
Early photograph of third floor (currently the painting classroom),
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Images courtesy of Dan Lopez.

Set back from the Georgian façades of the pedestrian Yard and nestled neatly against the neo-Georgian Fogg Museum, Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is a Brutalist icon of concrete and glass. Opened in 1963, the building was designed by Swiss-born French modernist architect Le Corbusier, and is distinguished as both his only North American building and the last to be finished during his lifetime.

Built to house Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), and stressing practice as much as it does theory, its intersecting floor plan and curving windows demonstrate many of the architect’s most celebrated architectural innovations, and signify his social aspirations for architecture. As the Carpenter Center turns fifty, it stands as a testament to the private university’s commitment to the public world of contemporary art and fosters international exchange within studio practice.

When Le Corbusier began work on the Carpenter in 1959, modernism was waning. When the building opened four years later, a new plurality of -isms, with their attendant sociopolitical revolutions, began to exert their influence. Last fall’s circa 1963 included work by artists as diverse as Josef Albers, Ben Shahn, and Yoko Ono, and illustrated the multiplicity of themes, materials, and styles that had bloomed while the aging modernist toiled on the Carpenter Center design in his Paris studio (with the help of Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente, a Chilean architect).

In curating circa 1963, Carpenter Center Director David Rodowick considered what an art student in the early 1960s would have thought about as they undertook studio practice, with emphasis on VES’s early mission. “The goals of the program at the time were to follow Le Corbusier’s sense that a student should not be rooted in a single medium, that the media were in dialogue with one another,” says Rodowick.

Photography by Aerial Photographs of New England. Right: Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Fifth Floor Plan, Architect: Le Corbusier.
Photography by Aerial Photographs of New England. Right: Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Fifth Floor Plan, Architect: Le Corbusier.

Just as Le Corbusier’s practice centered on exchanges between painting, sculpture, and architecture, the Carpenter Center was created through fluid conversation between architect and client. Le Corbusier only spent a few days on site, relying on his friend and colleague JosepLluísSert (then dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design) to understand his vision and oversee construction. Sert suggested he design the building because his artistic ethos coincided with Harvard’s urgent need to physically and ideologically unify the university’s art programs. “Le Corbusier never regarded architecture in isolation from the other visual arts nor the arts in isolation from the rest of human activity,” explains his friend and visual art professor emeritus Eduard F. Sekler in Le Corbusier at Work: The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.

The collaboration between materials and artists is paralleled in artists Katarina Burin and Amie Siegel’s co-organization of Brute, an exhibition that runs to April 7 and responds to the Carpenter as a physical space as well as a material emblem of modernist myth. Initially conceived over a conversation at Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Brute developed into a course that Siegel and Burin co-taught.

The show encapsulates the work of six international artists probing the meaning of archive, edifice, and historical idiosyncrasy through play with document and display. Often working via Skype, Siegel and Burin invited four other artists to make new pieces responding to the building or overall project who have inspired or stimulated their art-making to some degree. “Our interest in the building is looking at artistic practice,” say Burin and Siegel. Anchoring the show is a large floor-by-floor and footprint model of the Carpenter Center, fabricated according to Le Corbusier’s original plans. Existing at the crux of those used by architects and curators when designing their respective spaces, this model is an abstraction of the exhibition and building that will display mini replicas of works that Burin and Siegel considered when conceiving of Brute, but were unavailable due to the Fogg’s current renovation.

The model and mini exhibition are fictional, and thus reference the way in which buildings operate in imaginary spaces in the minds of architects, clients, and communities until they come to physical fruition. Using the model in the exhibition is a performative engagement with the way that structures—be they historical or physical—psychologically evolve as we experience them. Installed literally throughout the building, Brute is an organic conversation between media, material, and themes that parallels Le Corbusier’s artistic practice and potential-driven concept of the studio. “I think the Carpenter Center lends itself to that—I don’t feel the pressure to make the show polished,” says Burin.

Despite its established reputation for exhibiting experimental work by young artists, the Carpenter has never retained a professionally trained curator of its own, relying instead on short-term visiting curators. Now, in its fiftieth year, it will hire a curator to program spaces around the building, as well as to teach courses in curatorial practices. Currently, Claire Grace, a PhD candidate in art history at Harvard who recently served as a research assistant to the ICA/Boston’s This Will Have Been, is working on Living as Form, a show to engage Boston and Providence artists with their contemporaries working in cities around the globe. In thematic dialogue with other exhibitions planned for the year, Living as Form will come to the Carpenter by way of Independent Curators International.

Physically, the Carpenter is very much the same building that was opened in 1963. Building Manager Dan Lopez has been with the Carpenter for decades, vigilantly painting its walls the same colors that Le Corbusier envisioned a half century ago. (Lopez served as a vital resource for Burin, Siegel, and their students as they formulated Brute). When the Renzo Piano renovation of the neighboring Fogg Museum is complete, the two buildings will be linked by a ramp, which director Rodowick hopes will further the architect’s goal of transparency and exchange between people and the constructions they inhabit.

“We don’t want to change much,” says Rodowick of the Carpenter Center. “It is a building that produces pleasure.”

Note: Moment—Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory runs through April 18 at the ModernaMuseet, Stockholm. Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes opens at The Museum of of Modern Art in New York in June.

Leah Triplett is director of Martha Richardson Fine Art in Boston. She writes about art for a variety of publications and is art editor for Spolia.

©2017 Art New England, All Rights Reserved
Designed and Developed By: T. Montgomery