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 from 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. He was a man, ultimately, for whom only one dream didn’t come true:

 

“Like many architects, I’m a painter at heart.”


1901 Sert is born on July 1st in Barcelona.

1922 He begins to study architecture in Barcelona.

1926 Sert travels to Paris, where he buys some books by Le Corbusier: which make a great impact on his colleagues and give rise to concerns that will lead to the future creation of the GATCPAC group (Catalan Architects and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture).

1928 He meets Le Corbusier, who has accepted an invitation to give a lecture at Madrid University. Sert sends Le Corbusier a telegram asking him to extend his visit to Spain and repeat his talks in Barcelona, where they meet.

1929 He graduates in architecture.

1929-1930 He works in Le Corbusier’s Paris atelier at number 35 Rue des Sèvres.

1930-1936 He becomes a member of the GATEPAC group (Spanish Architects and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture) and the Catalan division, GATCPAC (Catalan Architects and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture).

1933 He is invited to take part in the 4th Edition of the CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture) in Athens, making contact with Europe’s leading architects.

1933-1937 The construction of a Tuberculosis Clinic in Barcelona, designed in conjunction with Josep Torres Clavé and Joan Baptista Subirana.

1935 The Garraf houses: a first attempt at adapting traditional models to a modern formal language.

1936-1937 He designs the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic for the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 in collaboration with Luis Lacasa, who is also a member of the GATEPAC. The Pavilion includes outstanding works of art like Guernica by Pablo Picasso, the Mercury Fountain by Alexander Calder and the mural The Reaper (Catalan Peasant in Revolt) by Joan Miró.

1937 After initial contact with Alexander Calder’s work between 1931 and 1933 in Barcelona, Sert has the chance to meet the artist in person in the spring of 1937, coinciding with the latter’s involvement in the Spanish Pavilion. From then on, they often meet up in Paris cafés, forging a growing friendship that continues when Sert reaches the United States in 1939.

1939 After he finishes his work on the Spanish Pavilion of 1937, he continues to live in Paris, returning intermittently to Spain, until in March 1939 (one month before the fall of the Spanish Republic). After that, he reaches Cuba and tries to enter the United States. On June 26th, he flies from Havana to Miami on a tourist visa, backed up by an invitation from Joseph Hudnut and James Johnson Sweeney to give a series of lectures at Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and other universities on the East Coast. After managing to get a six-month visa, he goes to stay in Van Rensselaer Hotel in Manhattan and immediately gets in contact with old friends and colleagues from his Paris years.

1939-1940 He makes contact with wellknown figures from the Paris art scene who have fled from occupied Europe. These include Marc Chagall, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, André Masson, Jacques Lipchitz, Georges Duthuit, Amédée Ozenfant, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, and the American Alexander Calder, who has returned from Europe. During the war years, at the initiative of the American sculptor, the exiles meet regularly at the Jumble Shop café in Greenwich Village. It is also in Greenwich Village where they enter into contact with Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, Krishner, Tobey, Still, and other exponents of Abstract Expressionism and Color-Field Painting.

On November 12th, 1941, he is condemned for his political activities, preventing him from returning to Barcelona. The sentence issued on February 18th, 1942 declares him to be “disqualified from exercising his profession” in Spain, and so he has no alternative but to prolong his stay in the United States indefinitely.

1942 He forms a partnership with Paul Lester Wiener, opening an office at 33 West 42nd Street in New York. Later, Paul Schulz joins them and they found Town Planning Associates, an office that remains active from 1945 to 1958, forging what will be an outstanding reputation in urban planning consultancy and urban planning projects for Latin-American cities.

1943 He writes Nine Points on Monumentality with Fernand Léger and Sigfried Giedion, a reflection on the integration they seek to promote among different disciplines.

1946 After several years of exile, he starts a process of reconciliation with the land of his birth, getting permission to travel to Barcelona, where his mother is seriously ill.

1947 Josep Lluís Sert and his wife Moncha become American citizens.

1947-1949 The first of his American homes in Locust Valley, Long Island, designed around an existing building dating back to about 1910 formerly used as a stable, garage, and even a greenhouse. The Long Island home only emphasizes the issues that beset Sert at a time in which he was torn between architectural work and urban planning. Sert’s Long Island home features work as important as the fourmetre- high mobile-stabile El Corcovado (1951) by Alexander Calder or the painting by Joan Miró on a fibre cement panel Projet de décoration (1935).

1953 He is appointed Chairman of the Department of Architecture and Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, taking over from Walter Gropius. He holds this post until he retires from teaching in 1969.

1954 He opens his own office in Cambridge.

1954-1957 Josep Lluís Sert designs a studio for Joan Miró to be built in Mallorca. Since the artist’s humility hinders him from carrying out his dream, it is his wife Pilar who writes to Sert, asking him to design a future studio. In January 1954, letters on the subject of the planned studio begin to travel back and forth between Sert and Miró. In March 1956, the building work on the studio has almost finished, but unexpected leaks forces Miró to wait until November 1957 to see his creative retreat completed.

1955 The United States Embassy in Baghdad.

1955-1958 He takes part in the film 8×8. A Chess-Sonata in 8 Movements by the Dadaist Hans Richter, a poem in film divided into eight improvisations based on a game of chess. It is a metaphor for the uncertain events that surround the lives of European artists exiled in New York. The main roles are played by painters, composers, poets, and architects who are all friends of the director. The scene in which Sert plays a bullfighter, with Frederick Kiesler as the bull and Paul Lester Wiener as the referee, is shot at Sert’s home in Long Island.

1956-1958 The Sert’s second home in the United States at 64 Francis Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a short distance from the Graduate School of Design. The home has been defined as “a Mediterranean implant in a typically American residential environment,” since it is an attempt to adapt the idea of a house with a courtyard to the climate and construction techniques of New England. Work by avant-garde artists, which featured in his Long Island home, now share space with tribal idols, pre-Columbian jewels, cane baskets, and traditional pottery, mostly collected during Sert’s trips to Latin America. The living room of the Cambridge house is presided over by a mural by Joan Miró dated March 20th, 1961, which inaugurates his Mallorcan studio, together with other emblematic works of art that accompanied Sert in his successive homes, like El Corcovado by Calder, the fibre cement panel by Miró Projet de décoration (1935), or the pochoir Figures davant el mar [Figures in Front of the Sea] (1934).

1957 Aimé Maeght’s visit to the Mallorcan studio leads to a collaborative Project between Sert and Maeght, because the latter decides to commission Sert with the creation of a modern art centre, the Fondation Maeght, with the studio’s Mediterranean shapes as a source of inspiration for the future building. The first interchanges between the architect and his client take place by letter, once again with Miró’s intervention.

1958-1964 The Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. The Project allows Sert to go back to the principles he formulated during the construction of the Spanish Pavilion in 1937 and to fulfil his much desired ambition to collaborate with artists, a dream shared for many years with his friend Joan Miró. July 23rd-31st, 1959 Sert travels to Saint- Paul-de-Vence to work on-site in the Fondation Maeght project. He also visits Mallorca and Ibiza.

1960 He designs what will become his home in Paseo de la Muralla in the old quarter of the town of Ibiza.

1961 Arrives to Cambridge a mural painting by Miró for the Serts, dated March 20th, 1961. According to correspondence, it was begun in about 1958. It is made as a gesture of grateful thanks to Sert and probably in payment for the Mallorcan studio he designed. The arrival of the mural in Cambridge, where it is placed in the living room of Sert’s home, coincides with a trip by Miró to the United States at the end of the year.

July 7th-22nd, 1962. Sert and Miró work together at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, placing the models of the sculptures on the still unfinished terraces of the Labyrinthe.

1961-1964 With Sert’s intervention, Harvard University commissions Le Corbusier with the design of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the Swiss architect’s only American building, just a short distance from the Graduate School of Design next to the Fogg Art Museum.

1962-1964 The Peabody Terrace housing units for married students at Harvard, next to the River Charles, with a sculpture by Elsworth Kelly in the car park.

1963-1971 The Can Pep Simó housing development at Cap Martinet, Ibiza, where Sert will build his second and final home on the island (1968-1969).

July 28th, 1964. The inauguration of the building of the Fondation Maeght. Later on, the art collection that accompanied Sert on his successive moves is given to the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University. Sert plays an important role in bringing about the donation of the work and, as a result, Joan Miró becomes the contemporary artist whose work features most prominently in Harvard’s art museums.

1968-1973 The Science Center of Harvard University. As an example of Sert’s interaction with artists, the building includes a bas-relief panel made with a sand-cast mould by Constantino Nivola, originally designed for Olivetti’s showroom in New York.

1968-1975 The building of the Fundació Miró in Barcelona is designed by Josep Lluís Sert. Miró himself develops the initial idea and programme for a centre of this kind, with the constant collaboration of Josep Lluís Sert and the indispensable aid of his eternal friend, Joan Prats.

1969 He retires from his teaching post at Harvard University.

June 10th, 1975. The Fundació Miró in Barcelona opens to the public.

November 20th, 1975. Franco dies. Two days afterwards, the Spanish Parliament proclaims Juan Carlos de Borbón King of Spain. The transition toward democracy begins.

1978-1979 The exhibition “Josep Lluís Sert: Architect to the Arts” at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts of Harvard University (December 2nd, 1978 – February 1st, 1979), which takes a look at the architect’s creative exchanges with figures as important as Calder, Giacometti, or Miró in places created for the arts and in his homes in Cambridge and Ibiza.

1982 At the end of the year, given the architect’s frail health, his art collection is handed over once and for all to Harvard’s museums. Femme by Joan Miró is also loaned to Harvard.

1983 Josep Lluís Sert dies on March 15th in Barcelona. He is buried in the cemetery of the town of Jesús, at the foot of his Cap Martinet home.