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The Forgotten Modernist

September-October 2007

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.)

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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.