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The Quest For Competency Report of the GSD Visiting Committee


This report is based on two official visits by the Committee to the Graduate School of Design: on May 27th and 28th, 1975, and on April 16th, 1976. In addition, individual members of the Committee have visited the School of many separate occasions.


There appears to be some confusion about the purpose of the Committee to Visit the Graduate School of Design and the significance of its report. In our view, we are to evaluate the effectiveness of the School in preparing design and planning professionals for both their present and future roles, and we should make policy recommendations based on our knowledge of the four professions (architecture, city and regional planning, urban design and landscape architecture), the context in which they operate, and the practice at other educational institutions.


The Committee does have one important prejudice which we articulate immediately. We believe that the Harvard Graduate School of Design should be one of the leading educational institutions in its field. In 1937, when architectural and planning education had reached a dead end, Harvard led the way out of the impasse by introducing modern architectural and planning theories to replace an outworn historicism. For many years thereafter, the Harvard Graduate School of Design was pre-eminent. It is this high standard that we have used in evaluating the performance of the School today. We believe that the School should hold a position comparable to that of the University as a whole, and of such professional schools as those of Law, Medicine, and Business.


We are aware that the last decade has been a difficult time for education, and particularly for education in the design and planning professions. The Committee is deeply appreciative of the valuable service performed by Dean Kilbridge in setting the School back on a sound financial basis and guiding it through a difficult, transitional time. Members of the Committee went through these years with Dean Kilbridge and they understand what the problems were and what he has accomplished. The Dean himself has made several statements indicating that the School, having returned to a sounder footing, must take up some new initiatives. We agree.


The crisis of the cities and the problems of the environment are two of the most important issues confronting our country, and they are of comparable significance in other developed, or developing, nations. All four of the professions represented at the School are trying to come to terms with elements of these issues and devise new and effective solutions to these problems. A measure of pre-eminence is the degree to which the School can take a leadership role in showing people how to solve urban and environmental problems, whether by buildings, large scale designs, government programs, relationships between government and business, ecological measures or whatever.

We have asked ourselves to what extent graduates of the GSD are prepared to work effectively in these areas, now and in the future, and to what extent the School is known as a source of authoritative information and innovative techniques relating to design and the urban and natural environment.

It is our conclusion that the School, measured by this standard, has a long way to go to achieve a pre-eminent position.


We believe that the GSD has failed to recognize that the "leading edge" of knowledge in the four professions taught at the School is in the area of implementation; the theory comes from the practice, and not the other way around. We do not discount the importance of research based on observation and evaluation, particularly in city and regional planning; however, a correct definition of a problem is not necessarily, even half of the solution. The solution inevitably requires some actual step to be taken: a building built, a zoning ordinance passed, a highway constructed, a housing subsidy program enacted, and so on. Theoretical investigations divorced from implementation will lead nowhere.

Recognition that innovations in practice supply the key to new theories leads to three educational policies.

1. Professionals being educated at the GSD should master the basic elements of their field as early as possible in the educational process.

This is not a prescription for a "trade school." There is nothing low-class about professional competence. It is a pre-requisite for leadership and innovation.

2. Professionals being educated at the GSD must be conversant with the latest concepts being used in their profession.

We are not advocating slavish imitation of one established procedure or another, only pointing out that, if the student professional is not fully conversant with the best of current thinking, he will not make the best use of his education. Re-inventing the wheel, unless consciously used as an educational device, is unlikely to be the best use of the student's time.

3. Professionals being educated at the GSD need to become conversant with a number of different disciplines.

Urban and environmental problems require interdisciplinary solutions. One reason that we believe that Harvard's Graduate School of Design can and should become pre-eminent is the strength of Harvard as an institution. We are astonished at how little the separate departments and programs at the GSD benefit from each other, or from their position in a great university. The Committee is conversant with the "separate bottom" description of Harvard's finances, but believes that it is perfectly possible to devise a workable system of co-operation between different elements of the University.


The Committee recognizes that the problems we discern in the Architecture Department are common to many schools of architecture and arise from a single central difficulty: the need to develop both the student's technical competence and his creative abilities. Too much technique may stultify a student's imagination, too much specialized design investigation leaves the student without the ability to translate ideas into buildings.

At the time of our visit in May, 1975, the visible symptom of an underlying malaise in the Department of Architecture was a surface placidity: the belief, as one faculty member explained it, that the heroic period of innovation is over in architectural design, and all the student can be expected to do is to master what has already been done. One student said: "The faculty is bored with us, and we are bored with them." In April, 1976, most of the discussion centered around what the Dean did, or did not say, before, during and after a speech in Seattle.

We do not agree that there is no more need for innovation in architectural design; theory and practice are probably changing faster now than they ever have before. We agree with the Dean's statement, in his famous Seattle speech, that architects have defined their role in American society too narrowly. Before an aspiring architect undertakes an expanded role, however, he must first learn to be an architect.

Our suggested change in policy for the Department of Architecture would be to give much more direction in technical matters, and permit much more freedom and diversity in matters of design.

The composition of the faculty inevitably gives too much emphasis to the tenets of "modernism" as formulated in Europe 50 years ago. The Department needs an infusion of talented new faculty who will advocate other points of view. We emphasize that faculty in the Architecture Department must maintain a continuing relationship with architectural practice if they are to continue to be effective teachers. The School should beware of personnel policies that prevent successful practitioners from teaching.

The Department should also give priority to re-evaluating its "core" curriculum. It is not possible for the Committee to make a definitive judgment about it on the basis of our visits, but we strongly suspect, based on the student work that we have seen, that the student is not becoming sufficiently proficient in the basic techniques of architecture at an early enough point in his education.

If the architect is indeed to widen his role, as the Dean has suggested, the architectural student must become familiar with the context in which this wider role is played. He must understand more about business, particularly real-estate, about law and government, about politics and society. At the same time, students in these other areas need to know more about architecture, or they will not appreciate what an architect might be able to do to help them. "Separate bottoms" or no separate bottoms, we believe that it is possible to work out reciprocal courses: architecture for business students, business for architecture students. We appreciate the difficulties: the environmental or architectural material offered to law or business students must be part of the main curriculum, otherwise highly competitive law and business students won't take the courses. We believe it essential, however, that reciprocity be established, for the mutual benefit of each professional school, even if it requires intervention at the highest administrative level. Following the line of least resistance and allowing a book-keeping device to set educational policy would be to deprive Harvard of one of the major benefits of being a great university: the creative interaction of its different components.


If the architect is to widen his professional role, a major way of doing so is through urban design. Harvard was one of the first institutions to recognize urban design as a separate curriculum. We are surprised to find, therefore, that urban design at the GSD is apparently regarded as something of a "step child," and that its continued existence as a separate program is in question. Surely, if there is a "growth area" in architecture today it is urban design, which is attaining increasing significance in the planning and landscape architecture professions as well.

At the time of our visit in 1975, the director of the urban design program was on leave. A well-organized and articulate group of urban design students told us that they had taken over the direction of their own studio, complaining that their teachers had less knowledge and experience than they did. In 1976, the curriculum appeared to be better organized, with most of the discussion with the Committee centering around the continued existence of the program as a separate entity.

The Committee believes that the rubric under which urban design is taught is not as important as the subject. It is theoretically possible to continue to teach urban design without a separate urban design department or program. Because of the nature of academic institutions, however, it is much more difficult to create a successful urban design curriculum without a separate source of funds specifically earmarked for that purpose.

We are concerned that the urban design program seems to have lost the position of innovative leadership that it once enjoyed. The reason, we believe, is that the curriculum has failed to keep pace with the growing body of accumulated interdisciplinary urban design experience. The work we observed in the studio seemed, on our admittedly brief examination, to have a rather tenuous connection to reality. What seemed to be missing was an authoritative contribution from experts in government, real-estate investment and the politics of community involvement. Again, Harvard would seem to be the ideal university to provide a solid, interdisciplinary basis for urban design studies. A major opportunity is apparently being neglected, no doubt because of the "separate bottom" problem mentioned earlier in this report.

We are also concerned that the urban design program accepts students from architectural, planning and landscape backgrounds, giving three urban design degrees, one in each of these fields. As an unusual policy that is an inducement to attend Harvard, it is probably worth continuing. However, it is important that students receiving a similar degree have reached similar levels of attainment. While it is not necessarily appropriate to define urban design as a separate profession, it certainly requires mastery of a defined body of knowledge and certain professional skills. We are not satisfied that all students are mastering these essential elements of urban design. The different backgrounds of the students could be an asset; we are not sure that they are being successfully integrated into the program at present.

Urban design is one of the key elements in mastering the array of urban and environmental problems that confront us. We believe that Harvard should be investing more resources into this area of study, and creating an interchange of information and skills between the urban design students and other professional students, particularly those in law and business.


The Committee is extremely concerned that the Department of City and Regional Planning is placing far too much emphasis on the social sciences and policy analysis and far too little on planning as an interventionist discipline. Its practitioners are supposed to make creative decisions which affect events. A medical school set up in an analogous way, with a curriculum consisting mainly of biology and bio-chemistry, and little emphasis on diagnosis and clinical practice, would not offer a very sound medical education. Dorn C. McGrath, Jr., Chairman of the Department of City and Regional Planning at George Washington University and a member of the Committee, made the following observations about the Department of City and Regional Planning:

"The conclusions that I have reached during the past year concerning the Department of City and Regional Planning are strongly reinforced by observations made at the school during the April 26th visit and by consultation with GSD students and faculty from all departments, including the program in urban design. My conclusions were further reinforced by conversations with several loyal GSD alumni who are among the leading practitioners in the professional planning field.

"First, the Department of City and Regional Planning appears to have abandoned the basic objective of preparing promising men and women for professional careers in city and regional planning. The evidence that leads to this conclusion is the following:

a) The recently appointed chairman of the department, although well-known as an economist and analyst of selected urban systems, is neither a city planner nor a regional planner.

b) The faculty member of the Department of C&RP charged with responsibility for developing the "professional curriculum" is without experience in city or regional planning and does not have professional qualifications in either field.

c) Of the eight new faculty appointments to the Department made in the past academic year or currently under active consideration, only one holds a degree in city or regional planning and he alone reflects any direct experience in the professional field; moreover, the same new appointee holds a more recent doctoral degree in political economy.

"Of the 16 post-graduate degrees held by the eight new appointees or prospective appointees to the Department of City and Regional Planning faculty, all but one are in fields other than city or regional planning. The Department affirms that the majority of the appointments are at such junior levels that only one of the eight can bring substantial professional experience in any field to the School.

"The foregoing evidence indicates to me, as it does to many other alumni who have watched the GSD for several years, that the School no longer seeks to be a leader among the institutions that have developed and sustained the professional field of city and regional planning. If this is a deliberate decision, then I consider it to be misguided. If it is an inadvertant drift away from a significant role in the professional planning field, then decisive steps should be taken to correct this regrettable course. If Harvard has actually chosen to embark upon an adventure in the more limited field of urban policy analysis, using the Department of City and Regional planning as a convenient vehicle, then the University should so state and stop misleading prospective students, alumni, and the general public with the current descriptions of its program and curricula."


The Department of Landscape Architecture has been the subject of an extensive review by a special committee under chairmanship of Prof. Frederick E. Smith. This Committee report was completed in June of 1975. The Smith Committee looked at landscape architecture as a profession and the role that a school at Harvard should occupy in educating landscape architecture professionals. It made detailed and specific recommendations. In general, this Committee endorses the Smith Report. Its emphasis on professionalism, project-oriented teaching and interdisciplinary co-operation is very consonant with the Committee's own view of appropriate policies for the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Summary of Conclusions

As stated above, the Committee feels that the Harvard Graduate School of Design must make some major policy changes if it is to be the pre-eminent institution that we feel that it could, and should, become.

We have found a drift away from professional competence that we find unfortunate. We repeat that professional competence is a pre-requisite for leadership and innovation.

We believe that the school is out of touch with the best people, and the best work that is being done in the four disciplines. We urge that restrictions on professional activities not be permitted to cut Harvard off from the faculty it needs to maintain a vital curriculum.

We are disheartened at the failure of GSD to benefit anywhere near as much as it should from its position as part of a great university, and the obstacles that we see to interdisciplinary co-operation. We believe that these obstacles could be overcome, and doing so would be of great benefit to the programs of the School, as well as to other components of the University.

We repeat that the problems of cities and of the environment are of central importance. The GSD could be exercising a leadership role in finding new solutions to these problems.

The Committee is pleased to learn of the appointment of Gerald McCue to the position of Associate Dean and Chairman of the Department of Architecture. We know that he shares our concerns.

We look forward to seeing constructive changes at the time of our next visit in April of 1977.

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