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JOSEP LLUÍS SERT
 
 
 
 
  Name   Josep Lluís Sert i López
       
  Born   July 1, 1902
       
  Died   March 15, 1983
       
  Nationality   USA
       
  School    
       
  Official website    
     
 
BIOGRAPHY
   

The career of Josep Lluís Sert and the ascendancy of modern architecture enjoyed a fortunate simultaneity, for Sert emigrated to the United States just in time for the height of his career to be synchronized with the American building boom and European postwar rebuilding. Advancing the causes of the elder modernists who had preceded him, with a freedom of aesthetic expression that they had had to eschew for functionalism, Sert built buildings where they had often been confined to theorizing. True to his utopian modernist roots as an early member of the Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), Sert’s oeuvre focused on the planning of public architecture for socially significant projects. For Sert, however, aesthetics were never secondary to functionalism, and thus the integration of the arts with architecture became an important tenet of his modernism.

Associated with liberal causes in Spain, Sert debuted internationally at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 with his design for the Pavilion for the Spanish Republic, housing Picasso’s Guernica. As a Catalonian refugee, the youthful Sert then followed an itinerant life, renouncing his homeland; moving to Paris, where he worked with Le Corbusier, to New York; and eventually attending Harvard University, where he followed Walter Gropius as head of the design school, concurrently establishing his own firm of Sert, Jackson and Gourley.

Sert had thrown down the gaundet of modern urban planning with his seminal text for the CIAM, Can Our Cities Survive? (1942), calling for the basic human rights to fresh air, sunlight, space, and healthful environs. His ability to quantify such quality-of-life issues set Sert at the apex of the fundamentals of modern urban planning, just as his emotional commitment to a humane environment, coupled with a very rationally applied methodology, made his the first really effective synthesis of the early modernists’ theories. Sert’s lifelong contribution was to fuse rationalism with humanity and creativity.

Sert built his first socially significant project, the Barcelona Anti-Tubercular Dispensary (1935, extant), to fight disease not only medically but also socially, for it provided a poor population with a small but restorative environment. The double-winged structure encloses a treed open courtyard, creating a miniature open space in a dense city sector. Sert’s functional and imaginative solution raised the work to the level of oasis amid urban chaos.

If “oasis” is the ancient image recalled by Sert’s modern urbanism, then “temple” reflects his architecture for art and human spirit, the first of which was his Spanish Pavilion (1937), a tentlike, lightweight structure appropriate to its ephemeral existence as exposition architecture. The simplicity of Sert’s reductivist statement—post and lintel with stretched tent above—echoed richly of the archaic spiritual temple. Processional up the modern machined entrance ramp climaxed with Picasso’s modern interpretation of the ancient tragedy of war, Guernica, deftly moving the viewer between abstraction and reality, from world’s fair to world war.

With the Spanish Pavilion, Sert embarked on an artistic journey that increasingly drew his most intense personal expression. The integration of art, architecture, and spirit via the archaic experience of processional; the light and space hinted at in this early work; and the meditative possibilities of architecture would have their mature expression in Sert’s late museums of art. His style evolved, retaining its Mediterranean roots for more than six decades: a thoughtful architecture of primary colors against pure white, agglomerative massing of cubic forms, functionally derived flat pattern, and intense interest in space and light.

Sert understood aesthetic dialectics, moving elegantly from art to architecture, from architecture to nature, and from vernacular materials to the modern machined world, always the modernist émigré drawn back to ancient echoes. In Sertian space, vacant walls of poured concrete are held in a striking aesthetic tension to his signature saturated colors, the solidity of his cubic forms is juxtaposed with the void space of courtyards, and silence is always at the center of action.

In major international works commissioned at the height of his American career, from the late 1950s into the early 1970s—the Fondation Maeght (1964, Provence, France), the Fondation Miró (1975, Barcelona, Spain), and the Center for the Study of World Religions (1958, Cambridge, Massachusetts)—Sert was able to give free rein at last to his innate artistic and spiritual nature.

Processional and vista are important in these late Sertian works for art and spirit. As if these were sacred sites, the Maeght and Miró museums are approached via long, winding hill roads, integrated with the natural topography, white cubes amid landscape. The Fondation Miró is vaulted, and the Fondation Maeght is topped by an inverted Le Corbusian roof, whose origins can also be traced back to Sert’s own oeuvre in the white awning above his Spanish Pavilion. Each art museum is com-posed of a series of masses of cubic forms, like an indigenous hill town, built of positive and negative spaces, in clusters resembling Iberian atrium houses. These modern compositions become visual meditations on the accretions of time, space, and stucco.

For Sert, the active and the contemplative, the sacred and the secular, and the integration of the arts with architecture were all significant pursuits of modernism. At Harvard University, Sert left a legacy of buildings and plans exploring these themes, in the Science Center (1970), Peabody Terrace (1964), an unrealized campus plan, and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963), a project in which he was affiliated with his friend Le Corbusier.

The Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions, however, speaks most clearly of Sert the man and his vision. One room of this work might be considered a summation of Sert’s oeuvre: the meditation room, the metaphorical center of the design. Here Sert planned for art, architecture, and spirit to be mutually enhancing in an empty room of blank white walls illuminated by a sole natural light source. In this silent statement of space, light, peace, and the universal imagery of spirit, Sert achieved a unity of beliefs with artistic form, of form with spirit. Here, in Sert’s words, truly is “a different monumentality.”

LESLIE HUMM CORMIER

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
TIMELINE
   

1 July 1902 Born in Barcelona, Spain ;

1929 Studied at the Escuela Superior de Arquitectura, Barcelona; master’s degree in architecture ;

1929–31 Assistant to Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Paris ;

1930–36 established GATCPAC, a group of architects affiliated with CIAM ;

1931–37 Private practice, Barcelona ;

from 1937–39 Lived in Paris ;

1939 emigrated to the United States ;

1939–57 Founder and partner with Paul Lester Wiener and Paul Schulz, Town Planning Associates, New York ;

1944–45 Professor of city planning, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut ;

1945 Member, board of directors and planning committee, Citizens Housing Council of New York ;

1947–56 president of CIAM ;

1951 naturalized in the United States;

1953–69 professor of architecture and dean of the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts;

1956–69 consultant to the Harvard Planning Office, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts;

from 1957 private practice, Cambridge, Massachusetts ;

1957 chairman, Planning Board of Cambridge, Massachusetts ;

1958–63 partner, with Huson Jackson and Ronald Gourley, Sert, Jackson and Gourley ;

from 1963 partner, Sert, Jackson and Associates ;

1964 chairman, American Institute of Architects Committee on the National Capital ;

from 1969 emeritus professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts;

1970–71 Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of Architecture, University of Virginia, Charlottesville ;

1972–74 member, Advisory Council, Princeton University School of Architecture and Urban Planning, New Jersey ;

1975 fellow, American Institute of Architects; member, National Institute of Arts and Letters; member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; honorary member, Royal Architectural Institute, Canada; honorary member, Royal Society of Arts, London; honorary member, Royal Institute of British Architects; honorary member, Académie Royale, Belgium; honorary member, Akademie der Künste, Berlin; honorary member, Royal Academy of Arts, London; honorary member, Society of Architects, Mexico; honorary member; Institute of Urbanism, Peru; honorary member, Académie d’Architecture, France; honorary member, Sociedad de Arquitectos, Columbia. Gold Medal, French Academy of Architecture ;

1981 Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects ;

15 March 1983 Died in Barcelona, Spain.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
FURTHER READING
   

The Sert Archive at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, is the most complete view of Sert the man and the architect. The archive includes works of architecture and urban planning, professional and personal correspondence, and photographs. Particularly interesting are documents concerning Sert’s circle of artistic friends, including Le Corbusier, Picasso, Braque, Miró, and Calder. Readers will note that the spelling of Sert’s first and middle names varies throughout his career, as he chose to identify his name with either its Catalonian or Spanish roots at different times. Bastlund, Knud, Jose Luis Sert, New York: Praeger, and London: Thames and Hudson, 1967 Gardner, Richard, Josep Luis Sert: Architect to the Arts, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1978

Selected Publications

Solutions, 1942 Can Our Cities Survive? An ABC of Urban Problems, Their Analyses, Their Solutions, Based on the Proposals Formulated by the CIAM, 1942 The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanism of Urban Life (coeditor with Jaqueline Tyrwhitt and Ernesto Nathan Rogers), 1952 The Shape of Our Cities (coeditor with Tyrwhitt and Rogers), 1957 Cripta de la Colonia Güell de Antoni Gaudí, 1969

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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