The Carpenter Center is Le Corbusier’s only building in North America, and one of the few modern buildings in Harvard Square. It’s both conspicuous and invisible. Set on a narrow, seventeenth-century block between two staid brick university buildings, it’s freakish and liberating. It doesn’t feel like an institutional building and it doesn’t even feel like a building, really. It feels more like a device for moving students in and out of its studios and galleries, a machine for coming and going.
The building is spectacularly porous. It has no center; in plan it’s two lung-shaped volumes connected with ramps that pass all the way through and spin off centripetally to the sidewalks at each side. Strangely, for a great modern building, there are no canonical photographs of it, and no single point of view from which you can see it as one whole thing. Approaching it on the sidewalk, you see the ramp and one half of the building, or the building cleft into two dissimilar parts. When I visited the Mill Owner’s Association Building in Ahmedabad I realized that Le Corbusier’s buildings, no matter how good they look from the outside, don’t lend themselves to one image. Instead they generate images for the moving visitor cinematically, and, in the case of that building, spectacularly. I could not leave the Mill Owner’s Building — I walked through it again and again. At the Carpenter Center, where I spent time roaming the galleries, I felt as if I were leaving it and then entering it again and again.