The Forgotten Modernist

Return to main article:

If there’s one name associated with the reputation of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) as the cradle of American modern architecture, it is that of Walter Gropius. His tenure at Harvard—from 1937 to 1952—marked the end of the academic French Beaux-Arts method of educating architects. Gropius’s philosophy grew out of his leadership of the German Bauhaus: an emphasis on industrial materials and technology, functionality, collaboration among different professions, and a complete rejection of historical precedent.

But according to two books on the history of the GSD—Anthony Alofsin’s comprehensive The Struggle for American Modernism and Jill Pearlman’s Inventing American Modernism—Gropius’s celebrity has eclipsed another important figure in the history of modern architecture: Joseph Hudnut.

Hudnut, a respected educator and writer with a particular interest in cities, was brought in by Harvard president James Bryant Conant in 1935 to modernize architectural education at the University. Hudnut created the Graduate School of Design (uniting the three formerly separate programs of architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning). He got rid of antique statuary, replaced mullioned windows with plate glass, and hired Gropius to head the architecture program. (The other leading candidate was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who, according to both Alofsin and Pearlman, did not like the idea of competing with anyone else for the job.)

Feature Article

Hudnut and Gropius got along well for a decade or so. But even though Hudnut was the titular leader of the school, Gropius was by far the more charismatic figure and an expert self-promoter whose students routinely insisted on his greatness while at the same time praising his modesty. Ultimately, Hudnut and Gropius diverged philosophically. Hudnut believed Gropius had gone too far in denigrating both the importance of urban context and the value of historical knowledge for designers. Gropius’s supporters called Hudnut a “reactionary……skulking behind lantern slides of the past.” But Pearlman poignantly quotes architect Henry Cobb on Hudnut’s urban-history courses: “The most affecting single learning experience……for many of us.” The pedagogical dispute between the two men was unresolvable, and they resigned within a year of each other. Hudnut was largely forgotten, while Gropius continued to be feted by students (sometimes sporting vote grope buttons) at an annual birthday bash until he died in 1969.

You might also like

Historic Humor

University Archives to preserve Harvard Lampoon materials

Academia’s Absence from Homelessness

“The lack of dedicated research funding in this area is a major, major problem.”

The Enterprise Research Campus, Part Two

Tishman Speyer signals readiness to pursue approval for second phase of commercial development.  

Most popular

Claudine Gay in First Post-Presidency Appearance

At Morning Prayers, speaks of resilience and the unknown

Harvard Portrait: Martin Puchner

The English professor has already written three books and edited the 6,000-page third edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature.

Who Built the Pyramids?

Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

More to explore

Exploring Political Tribalism and American Politics

Mina Cikara explores how political tribalism feeds the American bipartisan divide.

Private Equity in Medicine and the Quality of Care

Hundreds of U.S. hospitals are owned by private equity firms—does monetizing medicine affect the quality of care?

Construction on Commercial Enterprise Research Campus in Allston

Construction on Harvard’s commercial enterprise research campus and new theater in Allston