Dispatches: Present-ing a School’s History in Objects

Peter Hewitt Christensen

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35: Architecture’s Core?


Institutional histories usually have a few common themes and concerns that prove useful to those trying to bring their histories to life. At the very least, the facts that these institutions are almost always fixed in space and have missions or objectives that, even when they change, build on themselves provides a historian a measurement with which to build a story. The Harvard Graduate School of Design should be no exception, since its status as an institution is further reinforced by the syllabi, degree requirements, and protocols that ostensibly imply lucid narratives of pedagogy, ideology, and culture. When I was approached to organize the GSD’s 75th anniversary exhibition, I immediately thought of it as an opportunity to explore the ways in which a self-sponsored history could be useful in establishing an understanding of where the School is and where it may (and should) go.

There were, however, three problems that quickly got in the way. The first was exhibition content. Syllabi, handbooks, and other paper fragments were, for the most part, uninteresting visually and thus not really primed for generating excitement. More prosaically, there was a rather shocking deficit of record-keeping, a fact interesting in itself. Comprehensiveness by means of researching complete source material on any given theme proved effectively impossible. But nothing was more disarming than the overwhelmingly heterogeneous texture of the School itself. In the case of faculty history, available documents demonstrated how personality often took focus away from pedagogy. In available history about students, their extremely self-conscious desire to expand disciplinary boundaries was perhaps the only salient continuity. 

Change was inevitable, to be sure, and was particularly evident in the School’s evolving relationship to technology, civic and political engagement, and outlook on women and other groups underrepresented in design culture. But even then, the institution often had highly tenuous bonds to greater historical trends, perhaps because its faculty had a steadfast belief in being attentive to “timeless” issues alone. It then seemed somewhat provocative of me to focus on those “marginal” elements of the history that do link the School to the wider society. But this focus may paradoxically illuminate one core but neglected institutional continuity: that of resistance to convention, inertia, and the status quo­—political urgencies emerging in a sometimes apolitical culture. 

The exhibition would therefore have to seek out archival objects that were not bureaucratic records. Few theses and design projects were archived methodically until Studio Works, and the reasons for archiving some of them were just short of random. Objects demonstrating the staggering heterogeneity of the School’s faculty and students could be embraced and brought to bear in a celebration of the “episode,” a historical unit that seemed the opposite of the expected sweeping arc.

It seemed almost foolhardy, in planning the exhibition under an aggressive schedule, to delve into the theoretical terrain of objects and episodes. But if the idiosyncrasies of interesting found (as opposed to “curated”) content was all that one could work with, what would be the harm in using the heterogeneous object as the theoretical and conceptual linchpin? I turned to Walter Benjamin’s conception of aura, which, in extremely abbreviated terms, codified the nature of the double hold that man-made objects have on subjects.1 When extracted from the situations of their original existence and set within a new condition like an exhibition, objects of all kinds elicit a melancholy sense of decay—the decay of the situation and time in which the object “lived,” no matter how recent. This melancholia, however, seems to be neutralized when affected by the second emotion, which Benjamin characterized as a perpetual and very human desire to get closer to objects from the past through presentation and reproduction. What is this if not the desire to collapse time, perhaps even to travel through time, to make the past present? 

So a question follows: Could the melancholia of decay and of lost “authenticity” be somehow tempered by the simple power of an object being in our midst, by presentation and representation, neutralizing the sense of decay through the assurance that the past is renewable and giving the object the ability to unfold history in ways that are not nostalgic and that have fresh vitality? I hedged my bets on yes.

But to do this, a new kind of accompanying text was needed to make it clear that we are offering “objects” and not “artifacts.” Through interviews and archival research, the most interesting objects were unfurling their stories to me and a team of researchers, threading labyrinthine paths to fill in any important information gaps and finding interpretative clues not contained in the object itself. As we filled in the missing fields—who, what, when, where—the process felt oddly like reportage. The act of reporting fresh news, it seemed, was the perfect leitmotif for the occasion; it spoke to the present through moments of the recent and not-so-recent past, using source material as its undeceiving sources. The texts linked to each object would be written as if by reporters present at the original scene/time that the object was produced: “At today’s full faculty meeting . . .” From this sense emerged the editorial tone of the exhibition and much of its organizing aesthetic principles.

What follows is an exploration of three of the “dis­patches,” revealing events and institutional conditions illuminating the time in which they happened as well as the greater narratives of continuity and change, as they connect to themes as wide-ranging as women in design, the School’s eagerness and reluctance to embrace technological shifts, and its changing relationship to the allied disciplines of industrial and graphic design.

Housing 7

The 1946 GSD fall course register does not appear much different from the ones that preceded it: It has a plain red cover and compact size as these documents do today. On page 36, however, one can find a curious break with the standard format. The seminar Housing 7 is being offered by a Miss Catherine Bauer on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. “Miss” Bauer, the GSD’s first female faculty member, is not called “Professor” or “Lecturer,” as her male colleagues are. Beginning with her pivotal role in and testimony for the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, Bauer had styled herself as a reformer, not as an academic, despite all the indications that she was as well-read and rigorous as any other “expert” on American housing issues in the 1930s. The title “Miss” (as opposed to “Mrs.,” which Bauer could have used) had a certain affinity to Progressive Era women’s rights activists like Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. To be sure, Bauer’s diminutive title in the register may have had more to do with the fact that she was a woman than it did with any possible desire to suggest her role as a reformer and not as an academic, but the fact that the few other women faculty members elsewhere at the University predominantly appeared as “Lecturer” or even “Professor” hints that Bauer may have had options. Further investigation revealed that Bauer’s GSD students recalled her rather staunch opposition to academic norms, echoed by the emphasis on dissent, debate, and pragmatism in her Housing 7 seminar, which was no longer offered after her departure in late 1949.2 Bauer emphasized advocacy, but the register slants toward the more traditionally academic emphasis on quantitative, as opposed to qualitative, knowledge in the formation of policy: “The seminar will be concerned with all aspects of the problems of housing. It deals with the consumption, production, and financing of housing for all income groups, the relation of housing to the national economy, problems of land ownership and control in relation to housing, the public interest in the provision of adequate housing standards and codes, and the development of a national housing policy.”3 

Bauer’s desire to stir things up was no secret to the GSD administration. In a letter to G. Holmes Perkins, Dean Joseph Hudnut’s newly appointed chair of the Department of Regional Planning, Bauer laid out the rationale for the seminar: “I am firmly convinced that a housing seminar can be most effective only when the students represent widely differing viewpoints and training, including particularly the technical/aesthetic and social/economic fields. The problems cut across so many professional departments with almost equal emphasis that no one aspect can be handled successfully in practice without some positive discipline for breaking down some of the barricades that now isolate almost every profession, that it would probably be worth giving a course in it to a mixed group even if housing itself were not so important.”4

That housing might not ultimately be the core of a housing seminar but rather an entrée into a wider nexus of social and political issues underscores Bauer’s emphatic push for interdisciplinarity and advocacy in the GSD’s young and rather orthodox regional planning department, a trend that students who were shaped by Bauer’s short tenure at the GSD and who would become widely influential, like Lloyd Rodwin (cofounder of the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies), recall as having had a lasting effect.5 After moving to UC Berkeley in 1950, Bauer was listed not as “Miss” but as “Lecturer.” Shortly after leaving Harvard, she ranked high on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s list of suspected Communists (she later exonerated herself from suspicion), but her social and political edge dulled in a far more conventional teaching career at Berkeley.6 As lecturer there, she was part of higher education’s steadily increasing embrace of women, an embrace that seems to have stifled the more rebellious spirit for which she had been known in Cambridge.7 Her short tenure at the GSD was the only time that these conflicting desires truly existed in syncopation. 

No Modern History

Bauer would, I suspect, have attended a lecture by Marcel Breuer on February 9, 1948, organized by students at the GSD. Breuer and Bauer, together with Philip Johnson, constituted a curious triangle of both kindred and contentious forces and interests that connected the GSD to the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s through the early 1950s. Bauer’s prominent statements of populist advocacy were reflected in Johnson’s support and collaboration in a handful of social housing exhibitions at MoMA in the ’30s. Johnson, who had once called Breuer a “peasant mannerist,” later warmed up to the architect, putting his support behind curator Peter Blake to inaugurate Breuer’s design of the museum’s House in the Garden series with a decidedly posh version of Modernism in harmony with Johnson’s elitism.8

Breuer was already at work on the design for the MoMA house when he arrived in Cambridge for the February lecture. He had fled war-torn Europe with his mentor, Walter Gropius, to teach at Harvard and had only recently (in 1944) left to begin a private practice.9 Breuer’s lecture notes, which the GSD amazingly managed to keep, reveal a bittersweet, contemplative side of the famously pragmatic designer. They are festooned with sketches in the marginalia that reveal the playful, anti-polemical, but nonetheless reflective tack Breuer adopted for the occasion. Bauer would have surely also been lured by the title of Breuer’s lecture—”Analysis of Planning”—a subject not considered his area of expertise. “Planning,” however, quickly emerged in his lecture as something very different from housing or advocacy. Breuer quickly asserted: “Students asked me to give a talk about my approach in architectural design. This will be consequently no modern history, no slogans, no everlasting truth, no ‘machine for living,’ no ‘organic design.’ Just some of the methods and principles which I follow.”10

Breuer’s “planning” was a double entendre, a conflation of the planning of one’s career as a designer with the nuts-and-bolts tenets of the literal architectural plan; this dialectical irreverence is embodied in the analogies Breuer repeats in the lecture between human physiognomy (the body and the architectural career as the subject of the “plan”—one without mantras) and the problem of the house (architecture as the subject of the “plan”). At the core of this plan is the skeleton—or the “construction,” as Breuer called it—that provides the apparatus for the muscles and ligaments, equal to the material infill of the house, components connotative of its use value. The skin performs the aesthetic functions of expressing color, light, and proportion, promoting a vitality of the whole. This basic humanoid structure—skeleton, muscle, and skin—is not a universal formula for a perfect architecture the way it would be for Vitruvius or Le Corbusier, but rather, and quite simply, descriptive. The structure often operates deviantly, Breuer explained, solving unique physiognomic needs with tailored stopgap solutions—a protuberance of teeth, a disproportionate allocation of body fat, the occurrence of hair. Breuer discussed his fascination with these exceptional “constructive” situations as a product of the “experimental method”—in other words, the important process of deviating from staid norms and formulas in order to discover a better design solution, a method perfected by nature. This experimental method, Breuer urged his young and eager audience, was the key to a successful career as an architect—an organic “plan” one could follow loosely and without ideology.

Reading the lecture notes with their playful diagrams, meant only for Breuer’s own eyes, is discovering an architect being relieved of academic duty. His break with Harvard as well as with Gropius also marked a career more and more fluent in the organic and chameleonesque character of the experimental method, one that eschewed mandates in favor of a general method.

Filling a Graphic Gap

As a graduate of Harvard College in 1963 and an MArch student wrapping up his studies at the GSD in the spring of 1969, Harvey Hacker had been able to observe most of that decade’s tumultuous, climactic shifts right on campus. In a phone interview last fall, Hacker, who has worked in his own small practice in San Francisco since 1969, related how his design of a red clinched fist became an image of the social protest on campus and across the nation. During most of his undergraduate and graduate studies, Hacker says he was averse to political involvement, pointing out that even in the politicized environment of the late 1960s, the fairly liberal student body at the GSD was mostly too busy with studio work to get seriously involved in political initiatives in Boston and on campus.11 But that was to change with the student takeover of University Hall on April 9. “There were various degrees of interest and sympathy at the GSD, ranging from hostility to actual participation in the sit-in,” Hacker says. “This mixed response changed to nearly universal support for the strikers following the dawn police bust [on April 10].”12

After word of the violent exchange between stud­ents and Cambridge police officers, Hacker and other students from the GSD converged in the basement of Robinson Hall and discussed what could be done. They agreed that the grievances against the administ­ration lacked a visual identity, describing it as “graphic gap” that GSD students would be able to fill. They also deter­mined what would be needed: posters, fliers, and, less conventionally, T-shirts. (While at the GSD, Hacker had studied with the eminent Japanese graphic designer Toshihiro Katayama in Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies program. Katayama, according to Hacker, had fashioned a reputation in his studio work as equal part graphic designer and architect.)

A troupe of GSD students marched to a nearby art-supply shop and pleaded with the proprietor for a discount on silk-screening equipment. That inquiry, Hacker says, “awakened memories” of the proprietor’s own political activity as a student in Europe, and he responded, without hesitation: “Take what you want.” With their equipment on loan, the students returned to Robinson Hall to teach themselves silk-screening overnight. Through a collaborative process, they eventually agreed on the red fist as the symbol: Classmate Doug Engel had proposed a geometrically abstracted fist that incorporated the rounded visual fluidity that characterized the ubiquitous public signage of airports and sports facilities. Hacker says he thought it was the right symbol but lacked the emotional intensity necessary, so he recalibrated Engel’s design to one less abstract, modeled after his own right hand, as he drew it with his left.13 

By morning hundreds of posters and fliers could be found across campus, Hacker’s fist uniting them all in their various formats. About 200 T-shirts were silk-screened with a concerted effort to issue them in a number of sizes and cuts made for both men and women. Hacker and his classmates were attuned to Benjaminian auras. For starters, the posters were plas­t­ered to vertical surfaces across campus in a way that would make removing them for souvenirs impos­sible. For the duration of the strike, the GSD cohort, joined by a number of non-Harvard activists from the Cambridge area, turned the basement of Robinson Hall into a full-fledged silk-screen production shop. Hacker recalls that “they requested donations for supplies from people who brought in articles to be imprinted, archly refusing to impress images onto canvas for collectors or—God forbid—to sign anything as an individual author.”14 If anything, the insistence of Hacker and his colleagues that the actual use of the graphic image of the fist and not its lionization, reproduction, or re­appropriation speaks to a more timeless divide between the School’s faculty body and student body, a divide already suggested in the protest themselves. While the faculty insist on the reproduction of models and the publication of ideas for posterity, Hacker’s fist represents a decidedly student interest in just the oppo­site: design as a representation of a moment, of a sentiment and an iterative rather than projective explication of a position in both architecture and the greater culture around it. 

Modeling the Mainframe

The silk-screen shop and Hacker’s T-shirts conjure a sense of a last gasp in the pre-digital, hand-produced environment at Robinson Hall. The GSD has, along with architectural culture more generally, steadily shifted toward automation, reproducibility, and digital production over the last forty years, a shift that coincided with the School’s move to Gund Hall in 1972. The changes in the late 1980s and ’90s are some of the most dramatic. The GSD’s impressive pace-keeping in computer technology in this period is something I suspect was equal part borne out of a competitive spirit with MIT as much as it was the remarkable energy and leadership of Bill Mitchell, who led the School’s computer-based design initiatives between 1986 and 1992.15

By 1990 the viability and quality of digital design studios at the GSD became a central topic in internal pedagogical debates. Along with Daniel Schodek, Carl Steinitz, and graduate student Wade Hokoda, Mitchell produced an unsolicited diagram of a comprehensive mainframe studio computing system titled “Daedalus” that he believed would function as the platform on which the GSD could take the lead among schools of architecture in digital design (fig. 4).16 The diagram was distributed to students, faculty, and administrators in a grassroots effort to gain support for financing and building the ambitious infrastructural project, intended to extend the reach of the Laboratory for Construction Technology that Schodek had founded with the financial support of the Japanese firm Shimizu Construction and built out as a fully outfitted computation lab on the fifth floor of Gund Hall in 1984.17 

Hokoda, who had already forged a reputation as a pioneering illustrator of computer systems and networks, drew the diagram, which peeled away successive layers of the building in isometric to reveal the wired conduits that would integrate the Shimizu laboratory on the fifth floor, the Laboratory for Spatial Analysis in the basement, and a series of nodal stations for MIDI computers on Sun and Computervision operating systems in each studio “cluster” throughout the trays. Students would be able to go to a central terminal in the studio to access CAD software and subsequently route files to a centralized plotter. Produced a year before the release of Mitchell’s The Electronic Design Studio: Architectural Education in the Computer Era (MIT Press, 1990, coedited with Malcolm McCullough and Patrick Purcell), the diagram is the clearest visual manifestation of Mitchell’s pedagogical manifesto for the GSD, one that never saw the rapid fruition that Mitchell had hoped for before he went to work at MIT two years later.

What is revealing about Hokoda’s illustration is the tense relationship between Mitchell’s ambitions for technological change and the actual architecture of John Andrews’s design for Gund Hall. Electricity, for example, only circulated the plan of Gund within the trays’ slabs and would thus require the drilling of holes in the concrete and the creation of diagonal conduits following the slope of the roof. The drawing tables and studio partitions would inevitably need to be reconfigured, a reality that Hokoda seems to strategically leave out of his illustration, which renders a paperless and furnitureless studio environment that recalls a science- fiction interior rendering.

The Daedalus system, distributed as opposed to ubiquitous, nevertheless mediates a division of digital and non-digital labor in a way that the diagram does not necessarily make evident and that does not make the leap to the visions of today’s wireless design environments as directly as it may at first appear, indicating to some degree the nonutopian partitioning of analog and digital environments to suit specific facets of human work patterns conceived as different entities. Students were expected to walk within their studio to the operating system, some distance from their studio desks, where, we must infer, Mitchell and his collaborators imagined other activities transpiring, activities that Mitchell outlines in The Electronic Design Studio as integral to the creative (as opposed to computational) mind of the architect.18 Its comprehensive yet awkward integration into the School’s physical architecture articulates the inherent contradictions of revising a pedagogical idea in a fixed space. Daedalus made as reference to the mythological figure’s ability to fly, and hence be unbound, as much as it did to that figure’s keen skill and craftsmanship.

* * *

Bauer’s advocacy, Breuer’s experimentalism, Hacker’s support of student protests, and Mitchell’s inclusion of social/creative moments in a computer network—all point to institutional vitality coming, in part and ironically, from resistance to institutionalism. 

“075 Years of Design”

Giving the “Dispatches from the GSD” exhibition the subtitle “075 Years of Design” came about early on in a discussion I had with GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi. It is the affliction of the historian to see everything as a product of the past. It is the prerogative of a professional school, however, to see its role in helping shape the world of today and tomorrow. I resisted the use of “075” at first as a way to explain the GSD’s 75 years as equal part of a continuum that places equivalent emphasis on that which is verified by historical fact and that which has not yet transpired (“175” is anticipated by the 0)—which can make for an often awkward combination of history and speculation. But the source material—a collection of almost 300 objects furnishing 110 journalistic “dispatches”—unfurls episodic moments in the School’s past and elicits questions about what continuity and change mean when seen through neither the words of the historian nor the mission statement of an institution but rather through the prism of an array of objects that contain contradictions, idiosyncrasies, and auras. 

View of a student protester wearing a T-shirt with the logo designed by Harvey Hacker, on Harvard Yard, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. Photo: Daniel S. Brody
First page of Marcel Breuer’s lecture notes for an “Analysis of Planning,” delivered at the GSDon February 9, 1948. Courtesy Frances Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
1 See Walter Benjamin, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Charles Harrison and Paul J. Wood, eds., Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2003), 521.

2 See H. Peter Oberlander and Eva Newbrun, Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999).

3 Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Official Registry, XLIII:2, Cambridge: Harvard University, March 5, 1946. Provided by the Department of Special Collections, Frances Loeb Library, Harvard GSD.

4 Catherine Bauer Wurster letter to G. Holmes Perkins, May 29, 1945, Catherine Bauer Wurster Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, as cited in Oberlander and Newbrun, Houser, 228.

5 Ibid., 230.

6 Ibid., 247.

7 Ibid.

8 Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 270.

9 Victor Bondi, ed., American Decades, 1940–1949 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan/Gale Research, 1995), 193.

10 Marcel Breuer, lecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, February 9, 1948) The Marcel Breuer Lectures Collection, Special Collections, Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

11 Most of this information is recounted from a telephone interview I conducted with Harvey Hacker, September 29, 2011. I have tried to note his direct character­izations of events and figures by reporting them as his recollections when not relay­ing direct quotes. 

12 For more on Hacker and “the fist,” see Anonymous, “The Fist and its Clencher,” Harvard Magazine, July 1998.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 William Grimes, “William J. Mitchell, Architect and Urban Visionary, Dies at 65,” New York Times, June 16, 2010.

16 For this information I thank Stephen Ervin of the GSD, who not only lent this object to the exhibition from his own personal papers but also provided me with a great deal of information in an interview about the Daedalus project.

17 See Anonymous, “Shimizu Construction Co. Gives GSD $500,000 for New Labor­-atory,” GSD News, May/June 1984, 1.

18 Malcolm McCullough, William Mitchell, and Patrick Purcell, eds., Electronic Design Studio: Architectural Education in the Computer Era (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990). See, e.g., 72 and 251, which make reference to activities that occur in computing “clusters.”