“The saying used to be: take it easy, you’re not building a museum. But this time we are.” That was the way Pete Caratelli put it when I asked him what was different about the Harvard Art Museums building project. Caratelli, an electrician, manages the team responsible for installing all of the lights and audiovisual systems in the new facility.
In late March, I sat down with Caratelli and three other members of the construction crew. As an art historian keenly interested in the techniques of making, I wanted to learn what it took to transform a set of two-dimensional blueprints into a three-dimensional structure of steel and glass.
The answer: patience, careful planning and, more than anything else, a gift for improvisation. “On these big projects, there are things that inevitably fall through the cracks,” Jeff Cook, an ironworker and self-proclaimed specialist in “tricky situations” explained. “Architects can’t predict everything. You can’t even foresee certain things until you’re on site.” Countless problems arise in the process of construction: materials behave in unexpected ways, parts don’t fit together, and other details that work on paper, in Cook’s words, “just don’t look right.”
Cook was on site to install thousands of metal clips that he and his son designed and fabricated to hold in place the cables that power the motorized shades on the glass roof. The team had not realized these parts were necessary until the cables were unpacked and the shades were installed. “That’s when we went to work,” Cook said.
Like the other workers I spoke with, Cook seemed to relish the challenge of coming up with quick, ad hoc solutions. All the tradesmen gave a similar answer when asked to define their most important skill. Planning is crucial, but they agreed that you need to know how to think on your feet.
That point came across clearly when I spoke with Tony Fidanos, the lead mason on the project, who has spent three decades working with concrete. Fidanos has a deep knowledge of the material, but that knowledge has limits. “Concrete is alive. Not like a human being, but it is alive. You can control it only to a certain point.”
For general foreman Tom Frazier, whose team erected all of the steel that holds up the building, the most unpredictable part of this job was the site. The cars, bicycles, and buses shuttling up and down Broadway made for some serious logistical difficulties. “I’ve worked at nuclear plants that were less challenging,” Frazier explained, and then regaled me with the story of moving a 20-ton beam into the building. “We needed to work in the mud, like the Egyptians. We unloaded the steel and brought it in by hand, with come-alongs, hoists, and chains, one to two feet at a time.”
A grand building like this one is the outcome of thousands of decisions. Many of these decisions are made in front of the architect’s table, before the shovel ever hits the dirt. But many others are made on site, in the moment when the shade doesn’t work, the concrete doesn’t cure, and the trailer truck can’t make the turn onto Broadway.
Pete Caratelli, Jeff Cook, Tony Fidanos, and Tom Frazier were humble about their contributions to the building. But the skill, experience, and calm in the face of the unexpected they exhibit are part and parcel of the new Harvard Art Museums. I look forward to touring them through the new galleries.
Ethan W. Lasser is the Margaret S. Winthrop, Associate Curator of American Art.