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    Ted Widmer

    How a Mediterranean humanist lost his way in Boston’s skyline

    Boston University’s law tower, built in 1964, is the work of architect José Luis Sert.
    bulawcomm via wikimedia commons
    Boston University’s law tower, built in 1964, is the work of architect José Luis Sert.

    With its icy roads and icy stares, Boston may be the least Catalan city on the earth. True, one can spot the occasional Barça jersey on the subway, but there is little Mediterranean warmth in this cold, northern city. Hispanic cuisine continues to make inroads, as it does everywhere in the United States (the Old Corner Bookstore has reinvented itself as the Old Corner Chipotle). But that generally comes from south of the border, not across the Atlantic. Spain seems far away; Catalonia even further.

    So it is surprising that the city fathers turned over some of the most coveted commissions in the history of Boston and Cambridge to a Barcelona architect with a distinctly Mediterranean sense of his own identity. Like him or not, Josep Luis Sert painted an impressive canvas across the region. At the height of the last century, Sert built his Lego-like cubes all around Greater Boston, forever altering the skyline, especially along the Charles River. To this day, thousands driving into the city along Memorial or Storrow drives confront his modernist vision — a Catalan vision — of what a city should look like.

    At first glance, the towers of Boston University’s Charles River campus and of Harvard’s Peabody Terrace apartment complex may not look all that Mediterranean. But they stem from a vision of Sert’s that he originated early in his career based on the humble dwellings of eastern Spain and its island of Ibiza. “The human scale” was a phrase Sert liked, as he wrote and spoke about what made these small houses work, with children free to run among them — there were no fences or cars. Sert strayed from this vision, as his commissions got bigger and the buildings more grandiose, and he followed the money to New York and Boston. But deep inside those 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.

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    Sert grew up there, privileged, and drank deeply from the wellsprings of Catalan creativity. Gaudi was a hero; Picasso (who grew up partly in Barcelona) an inspiration; Joan Miró a friend. As Sert began to find himself as an architect and planner, he celebrated what was all around him — modest Mediterranean dwellings, cube-like, that seemed to grow out of the earth like barnacles near the sea. In a speech he gave to the Barcelona School of Architecture in 1934, he said, “We must stand up for an architecture of climate, a Mediterranean architecture designed for an internal sun.”

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    “An internal sun” — not a phrase one would associate with Boston. But there was a progressivism inside Sert’s ideas that appealed to young people everywhere. As he worked out the problems of how to declutter Barcelona, Sert made himself attractive to bold planners in other places. Sert and his colleagues took on unusual projects — housing developments for factory workers, public health buildings, and large apartment complexes that let in plenty of light with shared communal space, intelligently designed kitchens, and less of the hierarchical thinking that dominated the 19th century. At times, with his windows and his grill-work, Sert seemed to be painting a new kind of three-dimensional art, a Mondrian working in concrete. It is hard to remember, but that substance once seemed wonderfully plastic to young artist-architects — unlike the stone that had frozen Europe’s buildings in place forever.

    These progressive ideas came together incandescently in what may have been the bravest architectural statement of the 20th century — the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair. As the left-leaning Spanish Republic was fighting for its life against the Fascist Francisco Franco, backed by the German Luftwaffe, Sert designed a simple, humanistic structure that had at its centerpiece Picasso’s great statement against war: Guernica. That was Sert at his apogee — proud, Latin, and southern, a Mediterranean humanist defying the cold winds of the North.

    Unfortunately, the Spanish Republic lost badly. Barcelona was bombed by Mussolini, ending the talk of Mediterranean idealism. Then it turned out it was all just a dress rehearsal for a much bigger war. Sert fled to America in 1939 and found that, once the dust had settled, he was more in demand than ever. The money and the energy were in America, especially in New York, where he first set up shop.

    It was a great time for architecture, with cities desperate to rebuild. Some turned out to be mythical cities; Sert received huge commissions in Latin America, which often resulted in years of meetings and blueprints without buildings being built (such as his City of Motors complex in Brazil). His buildings were beginning to scrape the sky — Mediterranean cubes piled on top of one another — but they remained ideas on paper.

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    Sert’s Mediterranean vision made sense in warm latitudes and often brought him to hot spots. In the mid-1950s, Sert secured a commission in Baghdad — the US embassy. In that more innocent time, his main anxiety was how to protect the building’s inhabitants from the sun. Indeed, openness was one of the chief virtues of the design, with exposed terraces, reflecting pools, irrigation canals, and long vistas leading up to the edge of the Tigris. We don’t build embassies like this anymore, for obvious reasons. It’s heartbreaking to see what was once possible: an Arab villa, with Catalan influences, built by Americans.

    But in his eagerness to secure commissions, Sert developed a tin ear for what he once claimed to hear — the voice of the people. Another hot spot was Cuba, heating up quickly in the mid-1950s, when Sert developed a huge urban plan for Havana, another hopelessly cluttered city. Unfortunately, he was now at the whim of his client, the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and his plan showed it, with an enormous presidential palace, skyscrapers, a concrete “Central Square” dropped on top of everything, and much of Old Havana destroyed to make room for this concrete fantasy. It was more gaudy than Gaudi.

    Thankfully, this nightmarish vision (which resembles what actually did happen to Boston, with a “Government Center” built on top of some so-called clutter) was never realized. It would be a stretch to say that bad architecture caused the Cuban Revolution, but the somewhat miraculous survival of Havana’s Old City (given that Soviet architects were also quick to throw up concrete blocks) was one of the better results.

    These commissions, even the unbuilt ones, drew plaudits from the people who saw them in the leading architectural magazines — a world in which theory was as exciting as reality. Then, in 1953, Harvard offered Sert the deanship of its Graduate School of Design. Under a young president, Nathan Marsh Pusey, Harvard was prepared to shed some of its obsession with Georgian brick architecture and try new ideas. A remarkable window was opening — and Sert loved his windows.

    For the next 16 years, until his departure in 1969, Sert reshaped Cambridge and Boston. In the heart of Harvard Square, a wildly new glass and concrete structure, Holyoke Center, was built, jazzy in its dissonance (now renamed the Smith Center and about to be renovated). Down the Charles, Peabody Terrace, three 22-story towers, rose out of the earth like the tall buildings Sert had proposed for his Latin American projects. At BU, around the bend, he shaped much of the Charles River campus, including the Mugar Library, the 17-story law tower, the law library, the student union, and a boiler plant. He added, at Harvard, the Center for the Study of World Religions, the enormous Science Center, and a building he commissioned from his friend Le Corbusier, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. A lesser-known work, the former New England Gas and Electrical Association, sits on the edge of Central Square.

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    In these years, Sert stood astride Boston like a Roman, building anywhere he could, projects huge and small. The tiniest of all was a small jewel, the flattened villa he built for himself near Harvard. You might almost think you were in Ibiza, waiting for the warm winds of the Mediterranean to caress the veranda. He called it “a bridge between the Charles and the Tigris.” Who knew we needed one?

    Unfortunately, Boston’s winds, Atlantic winds, are not Mediterranean at all. They don’t caress — they punish. Especially if you happen to be standing near the base of a concrete skyscraper on a typical day in March. There were other problems with Sert’s Catalan vision — the concrete he painted with tends to age badly, so that his buildings have needed considerable maintenance. He once described Peabody Terrace as a chance to “bring the color and life of the Mediterranean” to the area, but there was not much color in his tall gray slabs. When these mini-cities for married graduate students were completed, the Harvard Crimson joked, “University Moves to Thwart Early Marriages.” 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.

    Yet the overall impact of these massive structures was a long way from the human scale of his early Barcelona projects. By the time Sert’s run at Harvard ended in 1969, he was out of touch with the new voices in the street. He did some more work in New York, then fled back to Ibiza, where he continued to lecture on the life-giving properties of the Mediterranean, until he died in 1983.

    As a new building boom has hold of Boston, with $7 billion of construction underway, perhaps it’s time to get right with Sert. He made mistakes, but his architecture is as indelibly woven into the city’s fabric as that of Bulfinch or Richardson, and his overreach can teach as effectively as his early idealism. Few would disagree with his love of green space, his warnings about the destructive impact of automobiles on cities, and his incessant search for the human scale.

    If utopian in some ways, Sert was also a realist, never more so than when he wrote in March 1964 for the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine: “Changes have to be accepted whether we like them or not.” The same might be said of Josep Luis Sert. His buildings are not going away anytime soon. We might as well get to know him.

    Ted Widmer is the Saunders Fellow for Public Engagement at Brown University, and a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He is an alumnus of the Peabody Terrace kindergarten.