America's Tower of Architectural Power


The next time you walk in the shadow of glass and steel skyscrapers that tower over cities from Boston to Baton Rouge, mutter a little prayer of thanks--or even a curse--to Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD).

From Boston City Hall to the Science Center, from New York's AT&T building to Seattle Center, dozens of buildings and hundreds of acres bear the stamp of Harvard design.

At one time the premiere center of Modern, or International, style of architecture in the United States, the GSD has trained a generation of architects who have transformed the character of the American city. Even within the parameters of Harvard, architects associated with the GSD also designed the lion's share of campus buildings constructed during the 1960s and 1970s.

Though no longer the undisputed cynosure of American architecture, the GSD, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, can still claim to be one of the nation's leaders in architecture, landscape design, and city planning.

Designers trained by the GSD include many of the most recognizable names in American architecture: Philip Johnson '27 (BAR '43), Michael Graves (MAR '59), Ulrich Franzen (MAR '48), I. M. Pei (MAR '46). Throughout the years, GSD-trained designers have have staffed this country's top architectural firms, mostly on the East Coast.


Still, of Harvard's nine professional schools, perhaps only the School of Public Health receives less attention than the GSD. The school's size and location on campus may have something to do with its low-key presence. Roughly 450 graduate students and 45 professors labor in relative obscurity in the glass and concrete Gund Hall, built in 1972 by Philip Andrews (MAR '58).

Even the school's birth in the winter of 1936 was a relatively quiet event, a mere shuffling of papers and shifting of offices. That's because the three departments that now make up the GSD--architecture, landscape design, and urban planning--had already been in existence here for many years.

Harvard offered its first course in architectural design in 1893, and a full-fledged architecture school, the nation's seventh, materialized a mere two years later. The pioneering landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted founded the first program of Landscape Architecture in the country here.

Then in 1902 the fledgling programs got their own building, Nelson Robinson Junior Hall; the first American courses in city planning, an offshoot of landscape architecture, appeared just seven years later. With the introduction of this last great topic in design, the incipient school was complete--although city planning would not become a graduate school of its own until 1929.

In 1936, under the management of Harvard's newly-inaugurated president, James Bryant Conant '13, the three graduate schools merged into the present-day GSD. Although the move was intended to unite the three schools, it was most notable not as a bureaucratic change, but for drawing two of the world's best known designers into Harvard's architectural womb.

First came Columbia University architect Joseph Hudnut '09, who assumed the deanship of the newly-formed school. At the time, Hudnut was a hot ticket and his "lectures throughout the country were creating a sensation" according to GSD historian and visiting professor Anthony Alofsin '71. And then came Gropius.

The arrival of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and undisputed holder of the "Mr. Modernism" title, reinvigorated the department, remembers Len Currie (GSD '38). Though "Harvard has always been tops" in the field, Currie says, "in '36 architecture was at a low ebb." Squabbles in the faculty, the departure of the old dean of architecture, and the sad state of American design during the Depression had shaken the school's confidence. Gropius's arrival boosted morale, and Harvard soon rocketed to the to the forefront of international design.

The school's precipitous rise, and the influx of volatile new ideas on the meaning of architecture, bred a peculiar mixture of worldwide fame--and campus controversy. As the University entered a period of rapid institutional growth, Harvard administrators hesitated to abandon the Georgian Revivalist style of the old Yard and the river houses.

As a result, Gropius, the industrial modernist, did not design a single building on campus until his 12th year on the faculty, in 1948. In that year he started work on the Graduate Center at Harkness Commons, which although typical of Gropius's work, ultimately encountered severe criticism from alumni. "No possible stretch of the imagination can see any sign of beauty in these structures," one acerbic alum wrote at the time.

Hudnut and Gropius had a falling out soon after the war, a natural result of the friction between these two strong personalities and their ideas. Both departed the school within several years of each other.

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