2005 Annual Design Review Environments Best of Category

Huyghe + Le Corbusier Puppet Theater
Marking the 40th anniversary of its Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only Le Corbusier building in North America, Harvard University added moss to ivy. The university built a temporary egg-shaped theater of white plastic covered in the fuzzy green vegetation and hired a conceptual artist to present two performances of a puppet show about Corbusier and the building. Collaborating with artist Pierre Huyghe and the Carpenter Center’s curators, Michael Meredith, an assistant architecture professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, conceived and constructed the project in less than three months for $40,000.

The theater’s prefabricated parts—500 white polycarbonate panels, all unique—were hand-assembled with bolts and wing nuts. The only frames were the two openings at the front and back. All other support came from a monocoque-shell construction model (the skin supports the load): For added rigidity, Meredith inserted CNC-cut foam into some of the tray-like panels and turned others upside down for a keystone effect. Once they’d erected the 12-foot-tall, 500-square-foot theater, Meredith and his team of graduate architecture students planted the foam inserts with moss. At night, when the theater was lit from within, the diamonds of moss seemed to hover in the air.

The originality of the plastic-and-moss combination captured the jurors’ hearts. “It’s the only project that really contrasts nature and industrial materials,” Dochantschi said. The group also appreciated the design’s reliance on a structural skin for support. Though Mahar questioned the way the theater interacted with its site in a depressed plaza beneath the Carpenter Center (it appeared wedged under the building yet did not touch it), in the end the jurors agreed that the project’s strengths outweighed this defect. Dochantschi, in particular, praised the theater’s embrace of contradiction. “It’s prefabricated without being repetitive,” he said. “You have something that is so organic, but it’s squeezed under this heavy Le Corbusier structure.”

Huyghe + Le Corbusier Puppet Theater

Design Michael Meredith, designer (Cambridge, MA); Geoff von Oeyen, Chad Burke, Zac Culbreth, Elliott Hodges, Fred Holt, design team
Client Harvard Design School/Fogg Museum (Cambridge, MA)
Materials White polycarbonate; EPS rigid foam; geofoam; moss
Hardware CNC router
Software Rhino

Q+A with Michael Meredith

What was the design brief?
It was completely loose. I was brought in at a point where people weren’t really sure what was feasible or where the theater was going to be. In the end we all agreed that the best spot was this sunken courtyard underneath the Carpenter Center, which is the saddest little spot in the building. It came about through a mistake. Corb designed a pedestrian ramp that cuts through the center of the building, so people could walk through and see the studios and the students working away. But what was allowable for a ramp slope in France is different from what you can do in the U.S., so they had to push the whole building down to the ground to accommodate it. That’s why you have this weird 3-foot sunken pit under the building. That space has never really been resolved. One of the first ideas was to bring people into the space and try to—well, it’s heresy to even say “mistakes,” but try to alleviate some of the mistakes.

Were there limitations because it was a historic structure?
We couldn’t attach anything to the building, so the project had to be completely self-contained. One thing I was concerned about was any kind of point loads. That’s why the base of the theater is packaging foam. It distributes the load and creates a little bit of a buffer between the concrete and the shell.

From where did you draw your inspiration?
There’s a critical point in the puppet show where Corb sits under a tree, so I focused on a tree that was on the site. The structure is almost an egg; I describe it as the inside of an eyeball. On one side it frames the tree, and on the other side it frames the puppet show. I was also thinking about what it would be like when the puppet show—a two-day event—wasn’t there. The structure became a remnant of the event and had to act on its own. So the whole thing was kind of pinched in at the end to frame the Carpenter Center’s lobby space.

The structure itself is gone now. Will it be reinstalled somewhere else?
That was the idea, but there’s another part of the story that Pierre talks about as a mini-opera. The guys that came to take it down didn’t do it correctly and ended up destroying it in a way that was really heart-wrenching to the students who worked on it. When I told Pierre about it, he said he kind of enjoyed that; he thought it added more to the story. The puppet show was all about the myth of the Carpenter Center, and then the way this thing ended, it became almost more mythic: It disappeared.

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