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Jean Paul Carlhian, 92; architect taught at Harvard

JEAN PAUL CARLHIAN

JEAN PAUL CARLHIAN

In discussions about architecture and with his own work, Jean Paul Carlhian emphasized the virtues of symmetry and stability, which were reflected in his design for the Warren B. Rudman US Courthouse in Concord, N.H.

People go to court for serious matters, he told the Globe in 1997, and he wanted his ­design for the Rudman building to reflect the stark options ­inside.

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“They are guilty or not guilty,” Mr. Carlhian said with a strong French accent that ­announced his Paris upbringing every time he spoke. “That is why the symmetrical building. It is yes or no. The symmetry is really the agony of judgment, and therefore it should convey that there are equal ­options of right and left, right and wrong.”

Mr. Carlhian, who was an ­architect for decades with the legendary Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and ­Abbott and whose designs enlivened the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and many university campuses, died in his sleep Oct. 18 at his Concord, Mass., home. He was 92.

In Washington, he designed the National Museum of ­African Art and the Sackler Gallery of Asian art, both part of the Smithsonian Institution and both mostly underground.

He also created classroom buildings, student centers, and residences for campuses including Harvard, where he formerly taught at the Graduate School of Design, and Northeastern University and Middlebury College in Vermont.

Along with his design work, he took on a national role with the American Institute of Architects, helping to launch its Committee on Design and serving as its first chairman.

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Mr. Carlhian insisted that committee members visit buildings that were finalists for ­annual awards, said Mark ­Simon, who served with him on the committee and is an architect with Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Centerbrook Conn.

“He felt strongly that architecture cannot be understood simply through pictures and words,” Simon said. “Sometimes photographs hide the greatest aspects of buildings. Sometimes you learn that a building fits better into its context than you ever imagined.”

Mr. Carlhian, he said, championed the idea of personal visits, “and I think that’s a legacy he left to the architecture community in the entire country.”

Carole Wedge, president of what is now Shepley Bulfinch, said in a statement that Mr. Carlhian had a profound influence on colleagues at the firm.

“He inspired us to be ambitious and passionate about ­design,” she said, “and there is no better gift for an architect.”

John Christiansen, an associate at the firm and the longest-­serving member of the current architectural staff, said Mr. Carlhian’s focus on design excellence remains one of his “valued legacies at Shepley ­Bulfinch.”

“His definition of a worthy architect was not easily earned,” Christiansen said. “He more than fulfilled his own exact­ing criteria in this regard.”

Mr. Carlhian often expressed those criteria in wide-ranging discussions that colleagues came to treasure.

“He was not a shy person; he would tell you exactly what he had on his mind,” said Mack Scogin, who teaches at the ­Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he chaired the architecture department. “He had this little twinkle in his eye and loved to bait you not into an argument, but into a discussion.”

Mr. Carlhian “loved the discourse,” said Scogin, who has a practice in Atlanta. “The world of architecture was his life.”

Born in Paris, Mr. Carlhian was the third of four children whose family ran an interior ­design and decoration firm that worked for wealthy clients and handled projects such as the residences of ambassadors.

He graduated from Ecole des Beaux Arts, receiving the best thesis prize, and his father expected him to take over the architectural component of the family business. Mr. Carlhian had other ideas.

Just after World War II ended, he studied at Harvard as a Wheelwright fellow and ­received a master’s in city planning. Harvard wanted him to return and teach at the Graduate School of Design. “I didn’t feel comfortable in France,” Mr. Carlhian told ­Edwards Park for the 1987 book “A New View from the Castle.”

“I argued with old friends about the class system, about the horrors of all that structured society,” Mr. Carlhian said. “I tried to talk to father. He was in his library, the walls lined with 10,000 volumes, and he was quite impossible.”

After telling his father that “by joining the Harvard faculty I would hardly become ‘a little drafting instructor in a provincial school,’ ” he left for ­Cambridge.

“By coming here, he saw so much more of what he designed be built,” said his daughter ­Penny of Charlestown. “He had an enormous career in comparison to his peers because America was at the cutting edge of what was happening then. He took a huge leap of faith and then really stuck with it.”

During studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he met Elizabeth Ware, who ­became a landscape architect. They married in 1948 and lived in Cambridge before buying a home in Conantum, a planned community in Concord.

“When he came home, they always talked about design,” their daughter said. “They had a real common interest, as well as having a big family.”

Mr. Carlhian added wings and a garage to the house.

“I used to say, ‘Mom, when’s the house going to be done?’ She said, ‘When your father’s ready to die,’ ” Penny said. and ­Indeed, Mr. Carlhian spent his last days looking out from his home at a river view.

Mr. Carlhian became a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1973, received the institute’s Edward C. Kemper Award in 1989, and was a resident architect at the American Academy in Rome.

He lent his design knowledge to organizations such as Boston’s Landmarks Commission, the Back Bay Architectural Commission, and the Historic Savannah Foundation in Georgia.

In 1997, the told the Globe that he regarded the Rudman courthouse and the museums he designed in Washington for the Smithsonian to be his greatest achievements. His work, however, stretches from Mather House at Harvard to a church in Brattleboro, to a college ­library in California.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Carlhian leaves three other daughters, Isabelle of Livingston, Mont., Judith Larson of Addison, Vt., and ­Sophie of Harvard; and seven grandchildren.

Family and friends plan to gather Friday to celebrate his life and work. Information about the gathering is available by e-mail at jpccelebration@gmail.com.

“He was a wonderful architect and his ideas about the history of architecture and his dedication to the discipline of architecture and the profession, were unyielding,” Scogin said. “I just fell in love with Jean Paul, honestly. He was an amazing person.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@
globe.com
.

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