Jean Paul Carlhian at the site of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1986.

Credit: Jeffrey Ploskonka

Jean Paul Carlhian at the site of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1986.
Remembered as the architect who took Harvard vertical, Jean Paul Carlhian left an indelible mark on the university’s campus that was the signature client of the firm where he spent his long career.

Carlhian, who died on Oct. 18 at age 92, joined the legendary Boston firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott in 1950, and was one of the architects that helped steer Harvard University away from its stately Georgian look toward a more contemporary style. His design of the 12-story Leverett House residence, completed in 1961, marked the beginning of a transformation that took the campus vertical, a process continued by the 19-story Mather House tower, completed in 1972.

Born in Paris, into a family that ran a prominent, international interior design studio, Carlhian graduated from the school of Beaux Arts, moved to the United States to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard, and never looked back.

Carole Wedge, president of Shepley Bulfinch (as the firm is now called), recalls that Carlhian wanted to work in the U.S. because he felt that the most interesting architecture was being done here. She remembers Carlhian as an “incredibly curious and ambitious person,” with a love of debate and a personal accessibility that belied his formal bearing. He could be intimidating and forbidding, but respected those who challenged him. Carlhian was old-world in his manners—Wedge says that he never once ate a sandwich in his life and disparaged the idea of touching food at table—but he enjoyed storytelling and the informality of freewheeling discussions with young architects.

Carlhian established the design committee of the American Institute of Architects, and served as its first chairman. John Christiansen, who worked with Carlhian at Shipley and is the longest-tenured member of its architectural staff says, “This focus on design excellence remains one of Jean Paul Carlhian’s valued legacies at Shepley Bulfinch.”

One of his most enduring achievements is largely underground. The entrance pavilions of the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art appear at first blush like exotic National Mall gatehouses for the Smithsonian Castle. But the twin granite structures front for a 400,000-square-foot complex containing gallery spaces, classrooms, offices, and storage vaults.

It was a complicated, challenging brief that required satisfying the sensibilities of the National Capital Planning Commission, preservationists, and the Smithsonian Institution museums themselves. In their cladding and ornamentation, the Neoclassical kiosks of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler offer a nod to the collections contained within. They are symmetrical structures, modestly scaled to the overall complex, that create space for an intimate, ordered garden that is among the most tranquil spots in federal Washington.

Patrick Sears, formerly associate director at the Freer and Sackler galleries, and who worked on the construction of the buildings early in his tenure there, said the design was “sympathetic to the surrounding buildings.” Although much of the vast underground space was used for offices and classrooms, Sears said that Carlhian was conscious of the need for a level of quality in the materials that reflected their standing as entrances to Smithsonian museums.

The buildings capture natural light in a plunging atrium in each entrance pavilion, and through strategically placed skylights. However, the overall effect is rather dim, and the exhibit lighting does little to compensate. This is especially noticeable on the African side, where the brightly hued objects appear slightly duller for the lack of light. Sears points out that the presentation is in part a concession to conservation, because the organic materials don’t do well under bright light.

The Smithsonian is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Sackler this year with events that include the pyrotechnic ignition of a pine tree by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The legacy of Carlhian’s design may be as much about creating space for the garden as establishing a formal gateway between the Mall and the core of federal buildings to the south.

"It is like walking through a keyhole," Carlhian told The New York Times, of the experience of walking through the gates into the garden complex. “I wanted a visitor to walk through something to be able to be prepared to enjoy a kind of serenity and contemplation."