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Josep Lluis Sert's Boston, Cambridge architecture: a gallery

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Josep Lluis Sert was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design for 16 years beginning in 1953 and a principal at a Cambridge-based architecture firm. During that time, the Barcelona-born Sert, who died in 1983 at age 80, designed several buildings around Cambridge and Boston, painting, as Ted Widmer reminds us in the Globe, "an impressive canvas across the region."

We can start in Cambridge with Sert's own house at 64 Francis Avenue, pictured above.

The architect himself described the design "as a bridge between the Tigris and Charles ... It has two sides, like a reversible raincoat. The exterior is red brick and features a wooden fence, and are the most common materials in the city. The interior, however, is completely white. Before deciding on a house with a yard of a single plant studied various types. One journalist wanted to know what style of house believed to be mine, and I replied: 'Write, "Ranch house Pompeian!"'"

The Harvard Science Center, on the school's main campus, went up in the early 1970s with a Sert design meant deliberately to stamp it as a modernist departure from all the more classical, Georgian architecture at Harvard. Yet, it wasn't all sharp angles and starkness, like, say, Sert's mentor, Le Corbusier. As the New York Times noted upon the architect's death, "Sert buildings tended to combine a certain rigorous, geometric modernism with an air of casualness."

Another Harvard commission, Sert's design for the Center for the Study of World Religions looks like something straight out of the Mediterranean coastline. No surprise, really, given the Catalan behind them, according to Widmer in the Globe: "Deep inside [his] structures, with their alternating window sizes and their effort to make concrete come alive with color and balconies, it is still possible to see the face of a fearless view of the future coming with great speed out of Barcelona a century ago."

The Mugar Memorial Library on Boston University's main campus in western Back Bay opened in 1966, and it highlights all of the above re: Sert's approach to design. Note the windows in particular, and the varying dimensions of each level.

Harvard's former Holyoke Center (now called the Smith Center) went up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The 10-story, H-shaped student union was Sert's first major project in the area. It is slated for a major renovation over the next two years.

Around the same time as the Holyoke one, Sert executed a similar design for the George Sherman Union at Boston University.

Perhaps Sert's most well-known work in Cambridge and Boston (and certainly his biggest), the three-spire Peabody Terrace complex of graduate-student housing went up at Harvard in the mid-1960s. The towers were an attempt to, as Sert described it, "bring the color and life of the Mediterranean" to the banks of the Charles. Did they, though? As Widmer notes, "[T]here was not much color in his tall gray slabs. ... To be fair, the huge buildings were filled with small, human touches, visible if you lived there — attractive woodwork, well-designed play areas for children, small convenience stores, a post office." Sert's modernist reach may have very well exceeded his grasp with Peabody Terrace, and, as Widmer also notes, it wasn't long before the architect split for his native Spain and his prominence declined locally.
· How a Mediterranean Humanist Lost His Way in Boston's Skyline [Globe]

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