PRINT April 2016


the writings of Josep Lluís Sert

Town Planning Associates (Josep Lluís Sert, Paul Lester Wiener, and Paul Schulz), Cidade dos Motores, 1947, Rio de Janeiro. Sketch.

The Writings of Josep Lluís Sert, edited by Eric Mumford. New Haven: Yale University Press; Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2015. 184 pages.

JOSEP LLUÍS SERT belongs to a middle generation of modern architects whose reputations have not fared all that well over the past half century. Groomed by such early-twentieth-century giants as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and the Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion and straddling the historical divide of World War II, Sert and his peers tend to be pegged as epigones, their expansion and revision of modernist ideology overshadowed by a far more polemical cohort of architects that emerged in the 1950s. Yet this bias fails to do justice to an especially thoughtful protagonist like Sert. As Eric Mumford argues in his introduction to this judiciously selected and edited volume of Sert’s writings—produced between 1951 and 1977 and mostly unpublished until now—the Spanish-born architect and planner continues to be a “blurry and misunderstood figure.” This volume therefore offers a welcome opportunity to reevaluate his legacy, in particular his prescient diagnosis of the consequences of a decentralized and scaleless approach to the urban environment.

Sert began his career in Le Corbusier’s office in 1929 and became a leader of the fledgling modern movement in Catalonia in the ’30s. His last project before the outbreak of the war was the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the 1937 world’s fair in Paris. Designed to display Picasso’s monumental painting Guernica, a testament to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, it offered a vivid contrast to the neoclassical bombast of Albert Speer’s German pavilion standing nearby on the axis of the Champ de Mars. Two years later, Sert went into exile in the United States, and in 1941, he set up the firm Town Planning Associates in New York, joined by Paul Lester Wiener and Paul Schulz. Benefiting from the cultural exchanges fostered under the Roosevelt Administration’s Good Neighbor Policy, Town Planning Associates received their first commission for a model town in Brazil, the Cidade dos Motores (Motor City), intended to accommodate twenty-five thousand industrial and agricultural workers in a site next to an aircraft-engine factory. This unrealized project and a series of others produced over the next dozen years for cities in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba served as testing grounds for the “functional city” doctrine that Sert was instrumental in promoting as member of the International Congresses for Modern Architecture (CIAM), an organization founded by the leading lights of the modern movement in 1928. The doctrine, which was codified in a summary document called the Athens Charter, drafted at CIAM’s fourth meeting in 1933 in Greece, was premised on a strict compartmentalization of the city into four discrete zones—housing, work, recreation, and circulation.

Even before leaving Europe, though, Sert had begun rethinking the functional city from a more humanistic and environmental perspective. Deputized by CIAM to produce a book expounding its urban concepts during the war years (when its activities were suspended), Sert published Can Our Cities Survive? in 1942 under the imprint of Harvard University Press. A photomontage on the dust jacket by émigré Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer depicts urban masses packed into a sardine can superimposed on a tangle of highways. For Sert, the urgent question was how to revitalize and “recentralize” cities that were being drained of their lifeblood by an already-rampant process of suburbanization. What was missing from CIAM’s vision of urbanism, in his view, was a crucial fifth function—the civic—essential to bind and unify the others.

In 1943, Sert collaborated with Giedion and the French painter Fernand Léger—both central participants in CIAM’s earlier activities, now sitting out the war years in New York—on a seminal statement calling for a “new monumentality.” It was an explicit acknowledgment that modern architecture, in its primarily utilitarian focus, had thus far failed to stir the public imagination. In their “Nine Points on Monumentality,” they laid out a program for the design of modern civic centers, envisaging postwar downtowns graced with impressive centerpieces created by teams of architects and artists. As Sert’s subsequent writings attest, he would continue to be preoccupied with the concept of “civic space,” as he called it, for the rest of his career. The new civic space would not just complement the other urban functions but would be the city’s beating heart, integrated with human-scale neighborhoods and powerfully enhancing the sense of urban community.

Two years after the war, at a reunion meeting in Bridgwater, UK, Sert was elected CIAM’s first postwar president, implicitly signaling a shift in modern architecture’s center of gravity from Europe to the US. He presided in this capacity until the organization’s demise at the end of the ’50s. In retrospect, his tenure was a largely thankless one, as CIAM was becoming the target of increasing criticism from both inside and outside the profession. Within CIAM itself, a new generation of architects was launching an aggressive attack on the Athens Charter, repudiating its abstract and mechanistic approach to urban realities and calling for “urban re-identification.” The internal debate turned rancorous by the tenth meeting, in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, in 1956, which was dedicated to producing a “Charter of Habitat,” an unrealized project. Three years later, at a final congress, held in Otterlo, the Netherlands, the young insurgents, now calling themselves Team 10 to mark their emergence at CIAM 10, jubilantly celebrated their parent organization’s mock funeral.

A couple of the writings in the collection offer insight into Sert’s struggles during this period. The transcript of a lecture titled “Architectural Fashions and the People,” given at Harvard in the spring of 1959, shows Sert departing from his usual measured style to decry “the trend to revolt just to be different, to attract attention, to make headlines.” Although Team 10 remains unnamed, Sert is clearly accusing the group of “youngers,” as they referred to themselves, of turning CIAM into a straw man for their own opportunistic purposes. In his view, the postwar discourse on the “heart of the city,” which he had worked so hard to advance, already amounted to a substantive revision of interwar functionalism and a new direction for modern architecture to follow. If only for generational and symbolic reasons, though, it was necessary that CIAM be relegated to history.

No doubt reading the tea leaves, Sert redirected his energies to a major new endeavor. In 1953, he had been named dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; his position consolidated those of Joseph Hudnut and Gropius, who had served—with growing rivalry and acrimony—as the school’s previous dean and architecture-department chair, respectively. Sert thereby acquired an influential platform not just for putting forward his architectural and urban ideas but also for founding a new discipline: urban design. The new field coalesced in a series of high-profile conferences at Harvard beginning in 1956, and four years later officially became an academic-degree program within the GSD. Urban design, in Sert’s framing, mediated between architecture’s focus on the building as a discrete object and the statistical approach of urban planning, which had by this date become associated with the failed policy of urban renewal. It also served as a tacit retort to Team 10.

Sert’s deanship at the GSD was accompanied by an active period of professional practice, carried out with his Cambridge-based architecture firm, Sert, Jackson & Gourley. Commissions included two important projects on Harvard’s campus: Holyoke Center, the university’s main administration building, designed and built between 1958 and 1965 and featuring a pedestrian arcade at street level, and Peabody Terrace, a dormitory for married students facing the Charles River, completed in 1964. Yet new winds were now blowing from another direction. Jane Jacobs’s blockbuster book The Death and Life of Great American Cities appeared in 1961, attacking the top-down vocation of master planning and the expert culture that Sert so emblematically embodied. Ironically, Jacobs had made her debut as an urban theorist at Sert’s 1956 urban-design conference. The concomitant rise of the counterculture and, by the end of the ’60s, the advent of postmodernism left Sert once again on the wrong side of history. He retired from Harvard in 1969.

As the present book makes clear, however, Sert never abandoned his fundamental principles, continuing to speak out as an eminent professional and public intellectual until a few years before his death in 1983. In the transcript of a 1977 talk titled “Balance in the Human Habitat,” in which he described his recent activity as a member of an international committee tasked with drafting a “Habitat Bill of Rights”—a project that recalled the abortive debates within CIAM two decades earlier—he reaffirmed his conviction that a “balanced” human habitat was a basic right of all urban citizens. His abiding (if somewhat vague) belief in urban balance found architectural expression during this period in various projects for sites in the Northeast and elsewhere in the US, in several unexecuted schemes for large-scale institutional buildings and master plans in the Middle East, and in a handful of commissions in France and his native Spain. Among the most successful of his late realizations is a pair of housing projects on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, constructed under the auspices of the New York State Urban Development Corporation during the administration of liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay. Innovatively configured from stepped apartment blocks incorporating landscaped courtyards and descending to the riverfront on either side of the island’s central circulation spine, the residential complexes strive for an appropriate mix of communal and private space, buildings and greenery, technological innovation and continuity with the existing context. At a moment when Jacobs’s critique of public housing as hostile and isolating was resonating loudly, Sert’s architecture offered an alternative modernist vision of “harmonious, balanced community.”

Sert comes across in his own words as a practical idealist and an alert and sensitive observer of his time, one who preferred to hew to the side of liberal institutions and to concern himself with the problems of real cities rather than indulge in utopian speculations. As Mumford points out, many of his urban proposals still retain their relevance; the pedestrian downtowns and environmentally conscious planning that he advocated are now received wisdom. Comparable in many respects to Alvar Aalto and Ernesto Rogers within his generation, he ranks among the most consistent and committed architectural exponents of twentieth-century humanism. From a twenty-first century vantage, his writings and career bear poignant witness to a time when it was still possible for progressive-minded architects to trust that formidable urban problems could be solved through professional expertise, humanely applied. “He was a man who lived in the present”: This is how Sert eulogized his friend and mentor Giedion just after the latter’s death in 1968, but he might also have been speaking of himself.

Joan Ockman is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and a visiting professor at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Cooper Union, in New York.