Graduate School of Design Launches $110-Million Campaign

Local and global ambitions for "grounded visionaries" in architecture, landscape design, and urban planning

Emblazoned on the side of Gund Hall, this phrase offered motivation for the Graduate School of Design’s $110-million campaign launch.
GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi awards President Drew Faust an honorary certificate naming her a “grounded visionary” during Friday’s opening event in Sanders Theatre.
Pritzker laureate Fumihiko Maki, M.Arch. ’54, closes the weekend’s events with a Saturday evening speech in Piper Auditorium.
Dean Mostafavi speaks at Saturday evening’s program in Piper Auditorium.
Gund Hall, the heart of the GSD campus, lighted up to celebrate the weekend’s launch events.

The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) launched its $110-million-plus fundraising campaign on September 12 and 13 with a series of events highlighting the school’s “grounded visionaries”: architects, planners, and designers who are at once free to dream of inventive solutions for—and intensely concerned with the practical challenges of—building a better world. Part of the University’s $6.5-billion capital campaign, the GSD campaign will support expanded international research and studio programs; new spaces for research and teaching, including proposals for a new research building to augment Gund Hall; and financial aid for students. Campaign co-chair John K.F. Irving ’83, M.B.A. ’89, whose $10-million gift kicked off the campaign last year, announced on Saturday that the school has already raised $69.23 million, or 63 percent of its total goal.

Speeches by two of the school’s most distinguished affiliates—both recipients of the field’s top honor, the Pritzker Prize—bookended the weekend. On Friday night, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, professor in practice of architecture and urban design, set the tone for the events to follow with a speech in Sanders Theatre. Speaking of the challenges and opportunities that rapid urbanization and even more rapid technological advancement pose for designers, he showcased the exhibit, a reexamination of the fundamental elements of architecture and design, that he designed for this year’s Venice Biennale with the help of GSD students. The following evening in Piper Auditorium in Gund Hall, Fumihiko Maki, M.Arch. ’54, G ’56 provided retrospective reflections on his six-decade-long architectural career, offering reminiscences on his work with many of the school’s earliest leaders in the 1950s.  

In the day between, a series of conversations and panels highlighted what GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi, speaking at the campaign launch on Friday evening, described as the constant tension between the processes of imagining and building that designers, architects, landscape architects, and planners face. Events throughout the weekend touched on the school’s research and teaching in areas as diverse as climate change, resilience in the face of sea-level rise, the ability of small-scale interventions to make cities healthier, and the role of designers in shaping the extreme processes of urbanization in the coming century. “Our goal is a better world, a more humane world, and, yes, a more beautiful world,” Mostafavi told Friday’s audience, which included hundreds of current students seated in the wings and the balcony of Sanders. “We recognize design as a catalyst for change with a strong social dimension. We make things that matter.”

“Design Infuses Harvard”

Events throughout the weekend showcased the broad reach of the design professions, which touch both cutting-edge research in engineering and technology and the familiar emphasis on humanistic and artistic traditions. Speakers connected the once-siloed departments within the school—architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design—and highlighted links between GSD students and faculty and peers elsewhere at Harvard. President Drew Faust echoed this refrain in her speech on Friday evening. “Design is in everything we do,” she said, citing GSD collaborations with the Graduate School of Education and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “Design infuses Harvard.”

As such, the school’s campaign has identified five different “areas of impact,” setting out research and teaching agendas for ways in which the GSD can help shape the processes of city building and design during the coming century. They include:

  • energy and environment;
  • urbanism and citymaking;
  • engineering and technology;
  • globalism and society; and
  • art and culture [UPDATED 9/15 at 2:30 P.M.].

“We think that there are a certain set of issues that are really of relevance today, and these issues now need to have groups of people working on them across the different disciplines,” Mostafavi said in an interview before the campaign launch. Furthermore, these areas seek to go beyond current research priorities, he explained, in order to “speculate” on the challenges of the future and help define the disciplines moving forward. “Our role also, as designers, is to not just respond to these situations ex post facto, but also to anticipate before certain things happen.”

Panels and lectures on Saturday highlighted how the school approaches these issues through research, teaching, and what Mostafavi calls the unique system of “research through pedagogy.” In the architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design programs, much of the core teaching occurs through a studio-based model, in which groups of 12 students learn the principles of design by engaging with the kinds of project-level problems they’ll encounter as professionals in the field.

This approach has led the GSD to reach out to other Harvard schools, and Faust explained on Friday night that it has been a particular leader in her vision of “one Harvard.” For example, professor of urban design and planning Rahul Mehrotra, MAUD ’87, chair of the department of urban planning and design, has for the last several years helped run inter-school research projects based on questions that “don’t make any discipline comfortable.” His classes on “Extreme Urbanism” have brought students from Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and the GSD together to study urbanization in India. He has also helped spearhead the University-wide study of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival that centers on an ephemeral megacity that houses seven million people and tens of millions more transients for 55 days. Interdisciplinary work, he reflected, “doesn’t come from, I believe, setting up an innovation lab, or setting up a big space where people in different disciplines can sit next to each other. They'd be as comfortable as two friends are next to each other. Unless they have a problem that forces them to transgress each other’s disciplines to find a solution, it won’t happen.”

From the GSD to the World

The five areas of impact, represented by multiple faculty and student speakers during several event panels, highlight the connections between the GSD and other Harvard schools, as well as between the school and the problems of the real world.

The environment: As coastal cities face more storm events and rising sea levels, and as building materials and maintenance demand ever more of the world’s resources, sustainability has become increasingly central to the school’s research and teaching agenda. Last year, as part of the campaign’s initial phase, a major gift from the Chinese development company Evergrande Group funded the newly created, interdisciplinary Harvard Center for Green Building and Cities. Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology and the founding director of the center, shared some of its initial work in an afternoon panel highlighting faculty research. As its first project, the center is turning its own office into a “living lab,” transforming the wood-framed house on Sumner Road, one of almost 14 million pre-1940s homes like it in the country, into a “net-zero” building that will require no non-renewable energy supply.

Beyond the center, finding new responses to environmental challenges has become an increasing focus throughout the curriculum. “The design skills are quite central: how do you rebuild the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy? How do you prepare for the next Sandy? How do you rebuild infrastructure to deal with flood and storm events?” asked Irving professor of landscape architecture Charles Waldheim, chair of the department of landscape architecture, who helped drive the creation of a new master in design studies track in landscape, urbanism, and ecology four years ago. “These are really questions that are being addressed at the scale of the city and the region, and in that scale, urban planners, landscape architects, [and] urban designers have quite a lot to offer.”

Urbanization: The opening panel Saturday morning offered an intense introduction to the range of research on cities and the problems of global urbanization. Titled “Wildly Civilized: Ecological + Extreme + Planetary Urbanism…What’s Next?” the event asked six affiliates from across the school’s disciplines to weigh in on the future challenges of shaping the process of urbanization in focused, five-minute presentations. On one end of the spectrum, Martha Welborne, the chief planning officer for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority and a former GSD Loeb Fellow, used the example of L.A.’s subway expansion to highlight the need for those in charge of building the future to understand the role that politics play in determining what can, realistically, be done. At the other end of the spectrum, professor of urban theory Neil Brenner, the head of the school’s Urban Theory “D-Lab,” questioned the very definition of “urban,” pointing out that United Nations statistics on the global population’s crossing the threshold to 50 percent urban are often based on shaky data. Brenner said these statistics often distract from the real challenges of population change, and shared with the audience why his research requires turning the problem on its head, understanding cities as systems in relation to both their own hinterlands and the planet as a whole.

Engineering: As technology has created new possibilities for computer-based designs, researchers have begun to rethink the boundaries of what design has accomplished. Designers are interested not only in what they can do with materials but also in how they can invent new materials and machines to create them. In an afternoon panel on professors’ current research, Andrew Witt, MDesS ’92, M.Arch. ’07, an assistant professor in practice of architecture, described the work of the school’s design geometry lab, which is creating custom machines to elaborate new architectural forms made possible by these new materials. The school is currently exploring the possibility of a joint master’s degree in design engineering with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Globalism: The GSD is among the most international of Harvard schools, and events during the launch similarly stressed its reciprocal reach outward. Two panels on faculty and student research presented projects including a study of rebuilding proposals in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake; a reimagining of a downtown street in a northern Italian city; and an off-the-grid house in far northern Japan. This global reach will be important for training the designers of tomorrow, Mehrotra said in an interview before the event. By working on projects in China, where the government is omnipresent, and India, where civil society and nongovernmental organizations play a much larger role, students learn how their design concepts can play out in the real world. “In today’s world, places become fluid, your identities become fluid. It’s beyond globalization in some ways,” he explained. “And so of course a great challenge for the GSD is: How do you train people to engage in this increasingly interconnected, complex, fluid, ever-changing world?”

The arts and humanities: As it pursues work in each of these areas, the school seeks to retain its traditional focus on the fundamental aesthetics of design and making the world a more beautiful place. In an afternoon session, McCue professor in architecture Preston Scott Cohen, M.Arch. ’85, Pritzker laureate Thom Mayne, M.Arch. ’78, and Kajima professor in practice of architecture Mack Scogin debated the tension between “revelation” and “relevance” in design. “I absolutely know [architecture’s] about personal obsessions,” Cohen said, arguing for the power of vision and point of view, even in the face of the constraints of architectural practice.

The school has strengthened its ties to the arts and humanities in the last few years, especially with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), by launching an undergraduate track in architecture studies within the department of the history of art and architecture. Noyes professor of architectural theory K. Michael Hays, who helped launch the program on the GSD side as associate dean for academic affairs, said in an interview that the collaboration has led to more robust connections among professors working on similar issues in the two faculties. With more funding, Hays said, the program could expand beyond architecture and into other areas of design culture, helping bring entire new areas of knowledge and “cultural production” into the College.

To support these areas of impact, as the school grows in terms of both student and faculty cohorts and the magnitude of its influence, the needs grow ever greater, professors emphasized. “Speculating about the future is an expensive business,” Mehrotra explained. “But I think that's what gives us the cutting edge.”

“This Is No Small Project”

The campaign’s launch weekend, though officially tagged an exploration of the school’s “grounded visionaries,” offered a second refrain, a call to arms emblazoned in large white letters on the side of Gund Hall: “This is no small project. That’s why we’re doing it.”

The school’s $110-million goal is particularly ambitious, considering the wealth of its alumni pool and the magnitude of its past fundraising efforts, which generally haven’t exceeded more than a few million dollars annually. (Its record-breaking fundraising in the 2013 fiscal year, which brought in $13.76 million, represented an increase of 332 percent from the previous year’s total.) The GSD’s endowment, campaign co-chair Irving told the audience in Piper Auditorium on Saturday night, is currently $400 million—more than a century after the first architecture courses were offered at Harvard, and more than 75 years after the school’s founding. “That’s a big—think big—audacious goal,” Irving said. “In the next four years, we’re going to raise 25 percent of what it took us 100 years to do.”

To support expanded research and pedagogy in these five areas of impact and beyond, the GSD has delineated three different pools for its fundraising: enhancing global impact; expanding capacity, both physically and intellectually; and empowering students, to reduce graduates’ debt levels so they can pursue careers outside corporate architecture and design.

Global GSD: As Saturday evening’s speech by Pritzker-winning alumnus Fumihiko Maki made clear, the GSD has been an international school since nearly its inception in 1936, with early leadership from Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who chaired the department of architecture in the late 1930s, and Josep Lluís Sert, the Spanish architect who served as dean in the 1950s and 1960s. That global tradition has continued: as of the 2012-2013 school year, 45 percent of the 77 faculty members were born outside of the U.S., and the student population was 38 percent international.

The school’s research and pedagogy reflect this global outlook. About half of the third-year “options studios,” which bring together students from architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design programs, consider problems outside the United States and involve significant travel, sometimes for an entire semester. “We are already global,” Irving said on Saturday evening, “but the cost to stay in the game is expensive.”

New resources for global programming would, in part, help support existing travel programs. Creating more baseline support for these “studios abroad” would free the time of professors who now worry about both the funding and the content of their courses. More significantly, creating stable funding streams would enable longer-term engagement with the same international sites, allowing GSD students and faculty to foster better partnerships with local professionals and help build capacity on the ground there. “One of the things that we hope may come from the campaign is some notion of a sustainable, expanded classroom,” explained associate dean Hays. “Harvard’s reach is global really like no other….And that comes with responsibilities.”

Capacity at home: The campaign’s second major goal, expanding physical and intellectual capacity, is a broad category that includes both support for a recently expanded professorate and student body and renovated spaces to house them. The school has grown since Mostafavi became dean in early 2008. The master in landscape architecture program, in particular, has doubled its cohort to 70 students in response to increased industry demand, department chair Waldheim explained. The campaign also earmarks support for the newly launched architectural-studies track for undergraduates, which began two years ago with funding from FAS and the GSD and from a grant from the Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching that provided the money to create a new, high-tech teaching space in Gund Hall. But in an interview last month, Mostafavi said that more sustainable funding is needed to continue the program and expand it into a stand-alone concentration.

Funding will also go to support current faculty and provide the resources to permit continued recruiting. Mostafavi has brought in eight new senior-level professors, according to associate dean for alumni and development Beth Kramer, but Waldheim, whose Irving professorship was endowed by the campaign’s co-chair, is the only one of the eight so situated. Grace La ’92, M.Arch. ’95, professor of architecture and director of the master of architecture program, said in an interview following the launch event that supporting faculty research is key to maintaining “intensity of action” at the school. The best way to keep “faculty who are very active and are very engaged,” she explained, “is to make sure that they have access to funding and access to the ability to stretch out and do the research that they want to do.”

Supporting this growing group of students and researchers will require new spaces, and new kinds of spaces, as well. Gund Hall was built in the 1970s for a population of 300 students, but the school is now nearly three times that size. Gund’s five iconic “trays” take much of the building’s main space, creating an open and collaborative space filled with student desks, but today the trays are more crowded, and the rest of the building’s users are feeling the squeeze as well. “We’re just bursting at the seams,” Hays reflected. The campaign will look for funds to renovate Gund Hall itself, updating the physical structure to meet contemporary efficiency standards and retrofitting key areas to make room for modern research and classroom space. Irving announced on Saturday that renovations would focus especially on the school’s first floor and basement, including changes to the Loeb Library, which takes up a huge proportion of the programmable space outside of the trays. 

New research, especially more space-intensive engineering research, also demands that the school look beyond Gund. The school squeezed a new fabrication lab into the basement of Gund, and bought three small houses along Sumner Road and Kirkland Street to house the new design labs in recent years. But those expansions were a “necessary stop-gap,” Waldheim said, not a solution. On Saturday evening, Irving announced that the school has begun to look into creating a larger space for research—a “five-story research tower” to supplement Gund Hall. “The idea of an architecture or design studio is over a century old, and it hasn't changed significantly,” explained Hays. Renovations and new construction of research and studio spaces would be an opportunity to do more than expand—to actually change the ways the school “[thinks] about those spaces from the start as spaces that would enhance design learning.”

Supporting future visionaries: The final campaign goal is expanding student resources, including enhancing experiences while they’re in school and providing more robust aid packages to reduce debt once they leave. The average debt for U.S.-based students graduating from the M.Arch.I program, the school’s main training program for architects, in the 2013 fiscal year was $93,000, while their average expected starting salary was just $55,000, according to the school’s annual report. Campaign co-chair Phil Harrison ’86, M.Arch. ’93, president of the Boston-based international design firm Perkins+Will, said in Saturday evening’s presentation that the school has tripled financial aid as its student population has grown 40 percent during the last six years. According to the annual report, 91 percent of students received some financial aid from either the GSD (80 percent) or other Harvard funding sources in fiscal 2013, including (a rarity for architecture schools) aid to international students. The average overall grant to students for that year was $17,200.

Creating more long-term, endowed sources of financial aid is intended to expand post-graduation opportunities for GSD students beyond the corporate sector. Funding will also help support student research, competition entries, and conference travel—all parts of fostering more creative, diverse careers. “After dreaming for two or three years…if they have to go into the sort of business-as-usual job structures, they’ve left their idealism behind,” Mehrotra said, explaining that debt loads are major obstacles to enabling the second half of the “grounded visionary” ideal to develop once graduates leave Gund Hall. “When people can go and work, on their terms, to change the world as they imagine it [could] be, with a set of values that I hope an educational institution like this inculcates in them: that’s the moment of transformation and change.”

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