Model Playground: Pedagogy & Architecture at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts

800px-Carpenter_Center,_Harvard_UniversityJoana Pimenta, Film and Visual Studies PhD and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Teaching Fellow, talks to the Bok Center about the role of education in Brute, an exhibition at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (CCVA) on view through April 7, 2013. Curated by VES professors Katarina Burin and Amie Siegel, Brute marks the 50th anniversary of the Carpenter Center, Le Corbusier’s only building in North America.

By Helen Miller, Departmental Teaching Fellow for Visual and Environmental Studies.

Le Corbusier, the renowned Modernist architect and designer, conceived the Carpenter Center as a model and a kind of playground for the arts in education, a model playground. Brute’s critical engagement with the mid-20th century building was itself conceived in Carpenter Center classrooms, studios, galleries and archives. Can you tell us a bit about the role of education in the curation of Brute and the building of the CCVA?

The fact that the Carpenter Center was an educational building, and that Le Corbusier strongly believed in the social importance of artistic education, was crucial for him to accept the commission from Harvard. His projects in North America up to this point had more or less failed and he was getting too old for traveling, so it is believed that Le Corbusier only accepted the Harvard project because of his commitment to its broad-minded educational mission. Not long after Josep Lluis Sert, then dean of the Graduate School of Design, presented the idea to Le Corbusier, Corbusier conceived the building as “a meeting place of hand and head,” somewhat anticipating the encounter between theory and practice that now takes place in the VES department.

Corbu, as many knew and referred to him, believed the building should create a synthesis of the arts, bringing together painting, sculpture, architecture and film; he didn’t want any of the disciplines to be considered static or isolated. Rather, the painting studio has large windows overlooking the sculpture space, the ramp presents a montage of moving images, and the lecture hall opens the space for intermedia performances involving multiple screens, music, live video transmission, slide and light projection. Corbu envisioned a malleable space, a series of open studios that students could adapt and appropriate.

Corbusier also wanted the Carpenter Center to have a relationship to the rest of the university, and so the ramp curves through the building, creating its own interior “climbing street,” a public space, which invites intrusion and which Corbusier intended for use by students and others making their way to and from campus and Harvard Square. It’s interesting to hear that the CCVA ramp will soon connect to the Harvard Art Museums. The new design for the ramp extends it from the CCVA down to Broadway; at its midpoint, it will intersect with the exterior staircase that leads into the entrance to the museums on Prescott. Let’s hope that this great new multi-museum–home to the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler–turns out to be free and open to the public; they are considering an entry fee for out-of-towners as we speak….

Indeed! One of the great things about the Carpenter Center is the travelers, student architects and other visitors wandering around the building on any given afternoon. There is a real sense of shared curiosity about the building—people peering into classrooms, peeking around columns, asking questions—VES students, staff and faculty letting visitors in, waving them out.

I’m curious about the broader spatial and historical context you bring up in mentioning the Fogg. For instance, how does Brute engage ideas about arts education from the middle of the 20th century? 

There was an important dialogue happening at the time of the Carpenter Center’s conception between Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Even though Corbu himself never taught in Dessau, it is known that he was familiar with the work of Walter Gropius, who in turn admired Corbusier’s view of the relation between pedagogy and architecture. For Gropius, who taught at Harvard for many years, art and architecture could not be conceived one without the other in the pursuit of what he termed an “unbiased, original, elastic” exploration. Such an exploration could only take place in a building that could function as a ‘model playground,’ as you referred to it, open to constant experimentation.

The exhibition directly addressed this history a couple weeks ago, when Katarina Burin and Amie Siegel, the two curators, invited VES professor Laura Frahm to give a talk on the educational principles of the Bauhaus, and how those related to the building. Laura gave a very inspiring and hopeful talk on “Bauhaus – A Teaching Idea,” an exhibition that ran at the Carpenter Center in 1966-67. Her talk recovered the spirit of invention and the call for fearless experimentation in which the Bauhaus principles were grounded. These were brought to Harvard by Gropius, and are hopefully still reflected in the building and the way it relates to the surrounding landscape.

Another way in which the exhibition engages a history of arts education is in the way it appropriates and animates the archives and collections at Harvard. Frahm’s talk was the preamble to a projection of stereoscopic slides of the Gropius House in Lincoln, MA, which the curators Siegel and Burin found in the special collections at the Graduate School of Design. They were commissioned to Louis Sutro in 1944 to be used in lectures at the GSD, and came with an individual viewer and a list of descriptive (even narrative!) captions. The slides were transferred to a projection by Michael Rosengarten, house master at Mather House and stereoscopy aficionado, and Siegel and Burin hired a voice actor to perform the captions. In this way, an educational material from the archives (which was also an artistic commission) is re-projected as a performance. This is only one example of several events curated as part of the show, which take place in unpredictable locations throughout the building.

Visit here for the complete interview.

4 thoughts on “Model Playground: Pedagogy & Architecture at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts

  1. Great article. As someone in the humanities, I am surprised by the lack of attention given to work space for the creation of academic ideas that are not themselves art (I may be partially motivated by the architectural travesty that is Voorhies Hall at UC Davis, where I spend much of my time). I wonder if a call should be made, as a method of fending off the insularity of academic discourse, for thinking within “a public space, which invites intrusion…” rather than for peace and quiet, often ill-expressed in the sterility of campus buildings. Perhaps the “constant experimentation” of Gropius would be better produced in academia if the physical spaces in which disciplines operate were not so hermetic, were more interdisciplinary, perhaps even more public?

    • Aimee, Even as someone not steeped in the arts and naturally a rather literal type, I too appreciated this interview. The conversation has piqued my interest (opened my mind) in how I might see the Carpenter Center and the way it encourages an interplay of public and private space, artist and tourist, painting/sculpture and film…I look forward to following the way in from the outside and onto the curving ramp…seeing any and all artistic activity/exhibitions in a new more integrated fluid way…hopefully taking me eventually into the Fogg. Perhaps on my next visit to cambridge. Patricia

  2. Aimee

    Even as someone not particularly involved in the arts and by nature a pretty literal type, I too appreciated this interview. Ms. Miller’s comments have piqued my interest ( opened my mind) in how I might see the carpenter center and the way it encourages an interplay of public and private space, artist and tourist, painting/sculpture and film….I look forward to following the way in from outside and onto the curving ramp inside….seeing any and all activity/exhibition in a new more integrated fluid way…hopefully taking me eventually into the Fogg. Definitely on my next visit to Cambridge.

  3. I’m so glad to hear that the ramp will be connected with the Fogg and Harvard’s other art spaces. When I studied in the VES department, I always loved the fact the contemporary art exhibitions in the Carpenter Center took place next to the exhibitions of art from all periods shown at the Fogg. With this expansion of the ramp, maybe the curators will consider coordinating some exhibitions in the Fogg and the CC! Corbu’s building brings a strong – and otherwise mostly absent – modern presence to Harvard’s campus. More than that, it was truly a joy to work in. He even designed skylights to illuminate stands for models!

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