Sunday, November 28, 2004

Le Corbusier in America

The Boston Globe has an article about Le Corbusier's only work in America, Harvard University's Carpenter Center. (And yes, I am no fan of his work).
[W]hen Sert offered him the job, Le Corbusier was still angry at what he called "American officialdom" for his treatment during the design process for the United Nations headquarters, where he had been turned down for the commission only to see his ideas incorporated into the final complex. Ultimately, though, he couldn't turn down the chance to build in the United States, a country that early in his career had represented for him the possibility of the machine age. And the Carpenter Center's role in both housing and embodying Harvard's arts program coincided with his idea that architecture should synthesize all the arts, including painting, sculpture, and even music. As the architectural historian William Curtis has written, Le Corbusier wanted the building to be a "manifesto."

Le Corbusier only visited Harvard twice, but one of his most vivid impressions of the place was the overlapping tides of students that filled Harvard Yard as pealing bells signaled the break between classes. "He was fascinated by that," Sekler recalled in a recent interview, "how it suddenly came to life."

... But the building didn't turn out exactly as Le Corbusier envisioned it. The electronic tones were dropped early on. More significantly, he was forced to abandon his plans to cover the building's external spaces with a garden, an extension of the greenery of the Yard. Unlike the manicured quads, he had wanted it to be a natural, untended garden -- seeded entirely by the wind and birds and insects, watered by the rain and allowed to run riot all over the building's several terraces. The idea didn't particularly appeal to the Harvard administration, and a lack of safety rails rendered most of the proposed space off-limits anyway. Today only the lower front terrace has a garden, and it's a rim of dirt thinly covered in summer with weeds.


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