He was only a dean in the literal sense for a decade and a half, but the label clung. Like ''governor'' or ''president,'' the title reflecting Josep Lluis Sert's tenure as dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University remained.

It said that the work of the architect went beyond the design of buildings to symbolize an approach that elicited the respect manifest in the longevity of the work.

Though Sert won his share of prizes (the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal was his in 1981), though he had his role as disseminator of the style of Le Corbusier, though his buildings received their fair share of acclaim, his place in the history of architecture goes beyond the accolades and commissions that never quite matched his stature.

The passing of Josep Lluis Sert in Spain in mid-March leaves no peer; his place in architecture has no parallel. Alone of the stars and near-stars of 20 th-century design, Sert made his mark as an architect du peuplem, not an architect du roim. Alone among his peers his achievements came not from commissions by banks or ripe plums of prestige handed out by the IBMs or Cummins Engines of corporate America, but from universities and museums - and even more than that, from housing projects, city bureaus, and housing agencies.

Whether for the Holyoke Center on Cambridge's shopping street or the Miro Museum in Barcelona, Spain, Sert's ideas and projects were informed by an honesty, an openness, a caring, and a core philosophy of design that is unequaled.

Despite notions that may not have quite worked as ''product,'' his ''process'' of urban design is a more vital legacy than many architects' complete resumes. That legacy - that receptivity to wider needs - may or may not endure, but its survival, in the end, will test architecture's capacity to be of true service to the world.

Born in Catalonia, Spain, in 1902, Sert entered the mainstream of modern architecture through joining the International Congresses for Modern Architecture (CIAM is the better-known French acronym) in 1929. He allied with CIAM, not for aesthetic notions that would produce what he called the glass ''fishbowl'' buildings of the international style, but for its social message - for what he later called an ''idealism'' that would enable architecture to change the world.

The concern Sert took from his master, Le Corbusier, and brought to America 10 years later, was not simply style, then, but a unique feeling for human beings.

In 1953, Sert took the teaching-administration post at Harvard. The administration was taxing; the teaching was a major contribution.

The ''faith in humanity'' that he singled out in his Gold Medal statement two years ago applied to the architecture that he produced in a half century of building - from the master plans and housing in Spain in the 1930s to town plans for the university projects at Harvard's Holyoke Center and Boston University's Charles River campus, where the chance to design vast complexes went beyond aloof megaliths to adroit urban arrangements:

''An urban campus is a cultural center within a city, and should set an example of good planning and good design for the city,'' he wrote. ''It is, in a way, a micro-city, and its urbanity is the expression of a better, more civilized way of life.''

Shy but always ready to talk, small but dynamic, Sert struck one observer as ''taller by far than a tall, tall man.'' The quotation from J.D. Salinger also applies to Sert's oeuvre, which looms larger by far than a large, large output.

''Urban'' and ''urbane'' were other words applied to Sert structures that took cognizance of the surrounding environment. ''Busy,'' the inevitable cab driver once praised a Sert building to me. The ''busy'' applied to any number of designs, from Harvard's Peabody Terrace for married students to the Roosevelt Island housing that was anything but monolithic or one-dimensional.

A Sert buiding might have translucent, clear, and opaque glass all at once; brise soleilm (screening); and a facade animated to the point of jumpiness. It might sit on its site with mixed-height buildings, passages, plazas, arcades, and a roster of design details.

But the ''busy'' applied to the human life within, too. A Sert building ''looks its best when there are people in it,'' Huson Jackson, his partner, says - a condition that does not apply to architects who prefer to depopulate their ''works of art'' to make them photogenic.

This was especially remarkable in an architect so conversant with art. Sert designed a house for Joan Miro as well as the Miro Museum in Barcelona. He left a collection of paintings to Harvard. Somehow, though, whether in Barcelona or at the Foundation Maeght in St. Paul-de-Vence, he knew what was art's place, what architecture's.

Perhaps it was his talent that enabled Sert to have both principles and a fluid approach to architecture. He had the creativity, one of his clients said, to listen - and then create the plan for the place. Josep Lluis Sert was not a man to latch on to some idee fixem at the expense of a working building or a humane city.

''This belief that architecture could enhance the appreciation of life and art in people really sets him apart from others in his field,'' design dean George McCue observed. He was, as McCue went on to say, ''one of the foremost humanists in the field.''

That overreaching idea and ideal made him one of the most principled as well.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today