Carpenter Center

Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge MA

Corbusier's Only American Work

The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is a building located on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge. The building is notable because it is the only building in the United States to be designed by Le Corbusier. Corbusier is one of the fathers of modern architecture.
Corbusier was commissioned in the mid-1950s to design a building to house Harvard’s newest department of visual arts. A colleague of his, Jose Luis Sert was the head of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Harvard originally wanted to use an American architect, like Walter Gropius, but Sert convinced them to go with Corbusier. Corbusier had developed 5 design principles over the course of his career that were the main elements of the Carpenter Center; pilotis, roof terraces, free floor plans, ribbon windows, and a free facade. Pilotis is another word for pylon, the idea behind them was to lift the building up on concrete columns, which allowed for a less constricted circulation pattern on the ground floor. The roof of the building was flat, as opposed to pitched, to allow for roof terraces. The roof was now another program element, and having gardens or decking on the roof allowed for the concrete to be covered and served as a programmatic element to the building as well. Because the floor plans did not rely on load bearing walls, the interior walls could be placed in a much more freeform manner, or the plan could be left completely open. Additionally, because the walls were not load bearing, ribbon windows were a possibility. These windows allowed for every space within the building to receive equal natural lighting. Lastly, because the building is supported by the pilotis, the facade of the building can be more open, and informed by design intent rather than structural necessity.
These principles are all showcased in some manner in the design of the Carpenter Center. But perhaps the most noticeable feature of the building is the ramp that splits the main massing of the building in half. The ramp itself is an S shape, connecting to Quincy Street on one side and Prescott Street on the other. The main entrance of the building is located in the center of the building, and the main art studios are on full display when the ramp meets the rest of the building. This ramp is looked at as a hallmark of designing with movement in mind and being the icon of the building making a name for itself.
The facade of the building features operable apertures called brise soleil. These are a louver system that shuts out excessive sunlight while allowing for outside air to cool the space during the summer months. The brise soleil is a great example of how having a facade wall being free of structural responsibility affects how the building looks. This allowed for the building to get maximum amount of natural light into the space. Some enjoyed the natural lighting element that was incorporated in the design, and others believe that the building “offers a refreshing change from the typical “Harvardian” red-brick box.”
There are some who view the Carpenter Center in a slightly more negative light. Blair Kamin details some of the problems that the Center currently has: “ ... a deliberately provocative exterior that thumbs its nose at its polite Georgian Revival neighbors. The center remains awkwardly wedged between the Fogg Museum of Art and the Faculty Club. The grassy stretch beneath the ramp is a residual nonplace, while the subterranean courtyard, rimmed with dull gray gravel, is every bit as off-putting as it was 50 years ago.” He goes on to note that “The building's upper floors, which lack air-conditioning get so hot in summer that floors four and five are not used for classes at that time.” Additionally, the central ramp that defines the building is not handicapped accessible, the only men’s restroom is located in the basement, and the acoustical qualities of the concrete do not lend themselves well to art that has audio.
Regardless of how people feel about the Carpenter Center, it is an extremely interesting building in the Boston area because it was designed by Corbusier. The Carpenter Center provides a fascinating look at an example of when modern architecture becomes an area of highlighted focus within the history of Boston.