Redesigning Architecture at Harvard

Not in My Backyard

In the fall of 1968, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) replaced the Department of Architectural Sciences. Some had argued that Architectural Sciences was too pre-professional, too much of a feeder school to the Graduate School of Design (GSD). As a result, Architectural Sciences had to go. Around Harvard, “pre-professional” seems like a bad word—God forbid the University might teach us something useful. But this aversion to all things potentially pre-professional prompted the imprudent removal of architecture from the undergraduate curriculum—never to return. With the curricular review ongoing, the time is right for Harvard administrators to reevaluate this glaring mistake.

I know little about the Department of Architectural Sciences that existed up until the late 60s, but from speaking to graduates of the concentration, my sense is that it probably was too pre-professional. However, if done correctly, architecture and urban studies has the potential to be the most liberal arts concentration at Harvard. The sad thing is, despite the department’s absence, there remains plenty of interest in architecture and the city—among both Faculty and students. There are many courses offered in various departments—ranging from Government to History of Art and Architecture to Environmental Science and Public Policy—that either touch on or are directly related to the field of architecture and urban studies. When Literature and Arts B-20, “Designing the American City,” was introduced in the Core curriculum last year, there was an unexpectedly strong response from undergraduates, and 275 students ultimately enrolled in the course.

Each year, a small number of intrepid students work on architecture and urban studies through special concentrations. I commend these students, for few students would be devoted enough to work without the support of a formal concentration and trek to MIT for studio classes—clearly an essential aspect of any architecture and urban studies program. Just because people can do special concentrations and cross-register for classes does not mean they should have to do so. There are distinct advantages of formal concentrations—tradition, advising, specific courses—and in addition, having a concentration legitimizes a field of study, allowing professors to define approaches and methods rather than forcing students to do so. Year after year, special concentrators in architecture and urban studies are effectively asked to reinvent the wheel.

There are a number of other Ivies, including Yale and Princeton most notably, which have undergraduate programs in the field—schools hardly known for rampant pre-professionalism. Stanford (the Harvard of the west) has an urban studies program even though it lacks any graduate program. This program, according to the most recent Stanford Bulletin, “brings together students, faculty, and outside specialists who are concerned with the people and problems of cities.” It examines the city “within the broad context of a liberal arts education…as an interdisciplinary field.” It encourages students “to inquire critically into both the nature of the urban environment and techniques used to modify that environment.” An architecture and urban studies department could be structured in a similar way to social studies or history and literature, with very few departmental classes other than tutorials and studio classes.

Architecture and urban studies is such a broad, liberal arts based field that it spans many if not all of the existing areas in the Core curriculum. For example, Social Analysis is central to the field of urban studies, and concentrators would likely be required to take introductory economics. A study of statistics (Quantitative Reasoning) is critical to understanding both the functionality of buildings and the composition of urban areas. A class I took at the GSD focused on the theories of Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt and their application to built space/public space (Moral Reasoning). In Foreign Cultures, there is currently a course called Tokyo—enough said. Literature and Arts A is intended to get students to focus on texts and textual analysis; in architecture, buildings are often treated like texts and analyzed as such (Jacques Derrida is an oft-cited thinker). Literature and Arts B focuses on non-literary expression and currently includes Alex Krieger’s Designing the American City course. Literature and Arts C examines how “culture is produced, interpreted, and disseminated”—issues of substantial importance in architecture and urban design.

Continuing on, Historical Studies A looks at the relevance of history to modern problems. Here the connection to architecture is also clear; Anthony M. Tung’s Preserving the World’s Great Cities is (not only a great read but) a good example of how the history of cities—political, artistic, economic, cultural—often plays an extremely direct role in their current problems. Historical Studies B considers specific historical movements, and a course on Utopia in the Machine Age would involve discussions of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and their visions for the city. Physical science (Science A) is at the heart of architecture, and biological science (Science B) also has an undeniably important role, from the psychological implications of space to the ecological impacts of different types of land use. I am not concerned with the so-called “methodology” the Core purports to incorporate; still, it is clear that an architecture and urban studies concentration would integrate and expose students to the vast range of disciplines the Core encompasses.

But what about Visual and Environmental Studies, the department that replaced Architectural Studies? This is not really the best option for students interested in architecture and urban studies. First, there are no studio courses that have any direct relation to architecture. Second, by concentrating in VES, one does not get appropriate exposure to the political and sociological aspects of the city—experiences essential to architecture and urban studies. To its credit, the VES department has recently been offering many more courses in conjunction with the GSD; however, the lack of studio courses has not been—and likely will not be—addressed within the current structure. An architecture and urban studies department would need to offer studio courses, and since there is no available space at the Carpenter Center, additional space would need to be found to make this possible. This short-term logistical consideration is not inconsequential, yet it should not be a factor in deciding long-term curricular changes.

One thing an architecture and urban studies department would have going for it immediately is the GSD, currently considered the best, or one of the best, graduate schools for architecture and urban design in the country. The GSD has a wide variety of course offerings, many of which are currently available to undergraduates through cross-registration. Clearly, if an undergraduate program in architecture and urban studies existed, it would inevitably be connected in some form to the GSD. The best structure of that relationship would need to be strategically determined, but undergraduates would not necessarily be seen as a burden at the GSD. Instead, they would bring a unique perspective—informed by a liberal arts background—that would heighten conversation and debate in the classroom.

Harvard graduates go on to careers in architecture, community service, environmental planning, real estate development, urban design and public policy. Having an undergraduate concentration in architecture and urban studies would allow at least some of these graduates to gain knowledge directly applicable to their eventual career fields, albeit with a liberal arts focus. In the upcoming curricular review, I would urge administrators to look at the longstanding bias against pre-professionalism. Currently, Harvard confuses practical education with pre-professional education, stridently avoiding the latter at the expense of the former. Practical instruction should be allowed when it supplements the theoretical and makes it more comprehensible. The College can offer courses that have practical elements yet still remain outside the realm of true pre-professionalism. In any case, architecture and urban studies should not stay marginalized, buried within other departments. Few other fields are more inherently interdisciplinary in nature.

Zachary R. Heineman ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Monday.