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Harvard exhibitions showcase Sert as the soul of collaboration

Architect's work with artists, in city design comes to the fore

CAMBRIDGE - One of the most beautiful small exhibitions of art and architecture you'll see in a long time is currently on view in the tiny Sert Gallery at the Carpenter Center at Harvard.

Josep Lluis Sert was a Spanish architect from Barcelona who was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1953 to 1969. He was also the architect of prominent buildings in the Boston area, including much of Boston University's river campus and Harvard's Holyoke Center, Science Center, and Peabody Terrace.

But the show ignores most of this American work. Instead it concentrates on buildings Sert created in Europe for the arts. ``Josep Lluis Sert: Architect to the Arts II'' combines photos and sketches of those buildings with some of the paintings and sculptures Sert collected and later donated to Harvard. These works of art were done by artists who were Sert's close friends.

Thus we see sketches, plans, and photos of the studio Sert did for his pal Joan Miro on the island of Majorca in 1955. There are design sketches in Sert's own hand - he drew beautifully - and later photographs of the studio with Miro at work in it.

What makes this show so remarkable, however, is that on an opposite wall hangs a great painting by Miro - ``Mural March 20 1961'' - that the artist made as the architect's fee for the studio. Under the dictator Francisco Franco, you couldn't take money out of Spain. No problem, said Miro, I'll come over to Cambridge and make a painting. Artist and architect measured the wall over the sofa in Sert's house, and the painting was made to fit. Today, of course, it is worth far more than the studio and the house together.

It's that kind of interaction with artists that made Sert so remarkable. Disclosure: I was for several years an associate partner in Sert's architecture office. I asked him once how it happened that he was close friends with so many famous artists - Pablo Picasso, Miro, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Constantine Nivola, and many others. ``You can't imagine what it was like in the 1920s,'' he replied. ``There were only about 200 people in the world who cared anything about modern art, and they all knew one another.''

The buildings in the show, besides the Miro studio, include the Spanish Pavilion for the Paris World's Fair of 1937, for which Picasso painted his mural ``Guernica''; the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, on which Sert collaborated with Miro, Alberto Giacometti, and others; the Miro Foundation in Barcelona; and the Carpenter Center at Harvard, by the French architect Le Corbusier - another Sert friend - a building on which Sert's office collaborated.

The art includes paintings by Le Corbusier, Miro, and Leger; a carved wood chess set by Calder; and a wall sculpture by Nivola. You'll rarely see so much good art in so small a space.

City planning

"Josep Lluis Sert: Architect for the Arts'' is one of several gestures Harvard is making to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sert's arrival as dean of the school. Down the street at Gund Hall, home of the Design School, is a larger exhibition called ``Josep Lluis Sert: The Architect of Urban Design, 1953-1969.'' It's an equally good show in its own way, but it's a show for groupies of architecture and planning more than for the general public.

Sert was as interested in city planning as he was in art and architecture, and he more or less coined the term ``urban design,'' creating the first degree program in that subject in 1959. The show traces his American career - he came here in 1939 - beginning with town plans for Latin American cities such as Bogota and Havana and extending through a selection of major US projects, built or unbuilt, up through the Roosevelt Island housing of the 1970s in New York.

There isn't enough material on any one project to explain it if you don't already know it. But there are many fascinating moments. There's a letter from Lewis Mumford to Sert in which he says he won't be critical, and then goes on for a whole page to be highly critical. There are two fine models, made by Harvard students, of Sert proposals for South Station and downtown Worcester.

It's also interesting, in view of today's neighborhood antipathy to Harvard's Peabody Terrace, to read Sert on that design: ``Again it was very important to consider the environment and ties ... with the city of Cambridge. We could not establish a massive barrier between the neighborhoods behind the site and the riverfront, as many of the older houses had done.''

In another place, this modernist writes: ``We should understand that functionalism does not necessarily mean that only the functional has a right to exist: The superfluous is part of our system - it is as old as man.''

Besides the large projects, there are drawings and photos of the marvelous house Sert designed for himself in Cambridge, a house with three courtyards that was the repository for the artworks now on display at the Carpenter Center (and many other paintings and sculptures). The house is now owned and well maintained by retired Harvard professor Gerald Holton and his artist wife, Nina; tours of it, one sponsored by the Cambridge Historical Society, are scheduled in the coming weeks.

Harvard also plans a scholarly symposium on Sert's life and work, to be held at Gund Hall on October 24 and 25.

Like much of the high modern movement, Sert's work has lost some of its public acceptance in recent years. But he was a distinguished figure for decades in the life of Cambridge and Boston. His pleasure in collaborating with great artists is something more architects should emulate. And his better work remains among the best of its time and kind.

It's welcome to see him being looked at so closely again in these Harvard exhibitions. Perhaps it's comeback time for Sert.

Robert Campbell may be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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