Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sert's Urban Compendium

Cambridge, August 28, 2013

Many years ago my old friend Tony Diaz told me about a lecture he heard in the 60s by the then young Manfredo Tafuri, in which the historian argued that all of Palladio's buildings and projects in the Veneto were part of a large interconnected scheme.

Years later when I came to Cambridge and began to look at Josep Lluis Sert's buildings for Harvard, I had the sense that there was a similar idea at work.  Between 1958 and 1973 Sert's office designed three major buildings for the university: Holyoke Center (1958-65,) Peabody Terrace (1962-64) and the Science Center (1973.)  Almost as in a catalog, each building addressed a different program and a different urban situation, presenting a distinct canonical scheme for each project: office slabs in the city, housing towers along the river and academic "mat" on the campus.

Holyoke Center houses the central administration of the university at the heart of one of the main public spaces in Cambridge, Harvard Square; its massing is defined mid-rise rectangular office slabs in an H-shaped configuration, with a two-story open pedestrian arcade running north south towards the river.  Peabody Terrace is a residential complex for married students along the Charles River; it is composed of three 22-story towers and a series of lower volumes articulating rectangular courts.  The Science Center is an academic building that includes lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices and a library; located at the center of the campus as a hinge between the Old Yard and the North Campus, the project was conceived as a "mat building" with different volumes attached to a pair of intersecting top-lighted street-corridors.

In spite of their programmatic and volumetric specificities, all three buildings share a similar architectural language, a kit of parts really, of concrete loadbearing structure and a variety of infill prefabricated panels, frames and shading devices.

You can extend the catalog with two other smaller buildings designed by Sert earlier on, the convent-like Center for the Study of World Religions (1958-60) and Sert's own courtyard house on Francis Street (1957-58.)  And at the risk of stretching the argument, you could even include a building for which Sert acted as deus ex machina: Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center (1961-64,) as...--what?-- as the cherry on top of the cake.

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