Josep Lluis Sert: Father of Urban Design and Peabody Terrace Complex

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Josep Lluis Sert

Josep Lluis Sert: Father of Urban Design and Peabody Terrace Complex

“I’ve always been interested in architecture as an extension not only of technical problems, but also of human problems. That aspect interests me very much: how that represents a way of life and a vital gesture. I am probably more interested in a less abstract expression of architecture than some of my colleagues.” —Josep Lluis Sert

Biography:

Born in Barcelona, Josep Lluis Sert showed keen interest in the works of his uncle, the painter Josep Maria Sert, and of Gaudí. He studied architecture at the Escola Superior d’Arquitectura in Barcelona and set up his own studio in 1929. That same year he moved to Paris, in response to an invitation from Le Corbusier to work for him (without payment). Returning to Barcelona in 1930, he continued his practice there until 1937. During the 1930s, he co-founded the group GATCPAC (Grup d’Artistes i Tècnics Catalans per al Progrés de l’Arquitectura Contemporània, i.e. Group of Catalan Artists and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture), which later became, with the addition of the western and north groups, the GATEPAC (Grupo de Artistas y Técnicos Españoles para el Progreso de l’Arquitectura Contemporánea), which was in turn the Spanish branch of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Some time later, he became President of CIAM (1947–56). He created several outstanding pieces of modern architecture during this period, such as the week-end house in El Garraf, province of Barcelona, Spain (1935), the Central Dispensary of Barcelona (1935) and the Master Plan for the City of Barcelona (1933–35). From 1937 through 1939 he lived in Paris, where he designed the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the World’s Fair, the Paris Exposition of 1937. The Spanish Pavilion was built right beside the Nazi Germany Pavilion, while in Spain the Civil War was going on and the Nazis had just bombed the town of Guernica. For the artistic content of the building, Sert called on his Spanish artist friends Picasso, Miró, and Calder; Picasso’s contribution was Guernica and became the focal attraction of Sert’s design. (Wikipedia)

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Josep Lluís Sert was a man of contradictions, a contentious presence–free verse in a world dominated by replicas and serial reproductions. Despite being a member of a well-known aristocratic family, Sert was at the same time a prominent member of the republican intellectual circles, a man who dared to be an avant-garde architect in a country ruled under the most absolute of conservatisms. Sert was also, like many exiles, a striver with a sad soul, an artisan of common sense in a world of extremes. He embraced architectural rationalism at a time when Spain had surrendered itself to antiquated Imperial dreams. He traveled and he emigrated. He fled. He took refuge where he could. Son of the Count of Sert and nephew of the first Duke of Comillas, Josep Lluís had to hide in the United Sates after the Spanish Civil War. In the U.S., he managed to rebuild a professional career which in time made him the first Spanish architect to achieve international fame–the first one of a type that we now give the dismissive title of “star architects.” It’s an unfair moniker for a man who opened doors,cultivated friendships and represented in some ways a portrait of the Spain that could have been.

“Like many architects, I’m a painter at heart.”
-Quote from the interview “A House Epitomizes a Way
of Life.” The Washington Post, September 24, 1967.

Sert with Picasso and Juan Miro
Sert with Picasso and Juan Miro
Peabody Terrace housing:
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Peabody Terrace Housing

One of the most important buildings of Sert’s career was Peabody Terrace housing for married students (1964). This planned campus from the start became an integral part of city of Cambridge along the Charles river. It was in a strong contrast with nearby georgian houses whose high walls turn their back towards the city and face the river instead.

Sert sought a level of openness, a certain degree of transparency in the housing complex in terms of expressive façade, its relationship to the existing built volume. We must not forget he was the person who first started Urban design as a discipline in Harvard.

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Articulations in facade shows a certain amount of playfulness as well as architect’s intention to open the building to the city of Cambridge.

The peabody Terrace housing, made of a cluster of three housing blocks was carefully integrated with the human scale by introduction of bridges. They are L shaped or in single wing so that open forms of manifold nature can be integrated with these blocks. Elevators here fulfill dual fucntion. On one hand they serve both the high rise towers and on the other hand the seven story buildings which is connected via bridges(see the sectional drawing). In this way an intermediate height structure is incorporated in the design without the usual insensitive five story walk-up.

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Simplified section and one module
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Site plan

Grouping of these buildings made it possible to eliminate the old prevalent idea of stacking all the 1500 population in a single stack up and yet only one third of the ground area was covered. The relationship of the outside world was factored in the design consideration and from Putnam avenue one first sees a row of three story houses, similar in scale to the houses of surrounding areas.

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These two groupings forms a central plaza, around which all community gatherings take place, thus bridging the assembly of different dwelling units into a small but lively urban neighborhood.

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A great deal of care has been taken to break uniformity which is mostly dull of contemporary housing structures and as a whole a unified complex character is created. The varied treatment by Sert for revitalizations of the wall shows breaking down uniform straight wall.The variations too are  not arbitrary. They follow a certain pattern for different orientations or different aspects of rooms- for example, the western ones, which face the Charles river, need careful protection from the sultry sun of the summer.

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A dichotomy of personal freedom and a visual diversity is maintained in a delicate balance in the facade design

The main materials used in the construction of the complex are reinforced concrete, iron, brick and glass. Today, the tall towers are important examples of modernist design made with poured concrete “in situ”, being visited by architects from around the world who study the iconic housing complex.

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Peabody terrace in its full glory.

The building block of the complex is a standardized system modules three floors with six units, built on a central staircase with a corridor three floors high.

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