For many Harvard University Graduate School of Design students, taking a course with K. Michael Hays is a rite of passage. For the first time, starting February 28, GSD alumni and architecture enthusiasts around the world will be able to experience this GSD tradition through a new HarvardX course orchestrated by Hays, the GSD’s Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, as well as Interim Chair for the Department of Architecture.

“The Architectural Imagination” is the GSD’s first foray into the realm of  massive open online courses (MOOC). The 10-module course is free and open to all, with an option to pursue a verified certificate for a fee. A faculty-driven and university-wide effort, HarvardX is a catalyst for improving teaching and learning online. Since its founding in 2012, it has published over 82 open courses, with The Architectural Imagination being the first in architecture.

K. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory, associate dean for Academic Affairs, and interim chair of the Department of Architecture

In the course, analysis of buildings from a wide range of historical contexts is coupled with hands-on exercises in drawing and modeling. Hays is teaching the course in conjunction with Erika Naginski, professor of architectural history and director of graduate studies, and Antoine Picon, the G. Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology and director of research at the GSD.

Each module places students in an individual lecture with a theoretical argument. Shot around Harvard and the GSD, iconic Harvard locations being studied and discussed in the course, including the Trays in Gund Hall and the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, will be recognizable to alumni. The topic has captured the interest of learners from around the world with tens of thousands of particpaints and is a powerful platform to potentially to reach thousands more.

Hays designed this course over a three-year period, based on an existing introductory GSD course for Master in Architecture I students. The content is rooted in the study of history’s important buildings because according to Hays, “Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated and globally recognized cultural practices, both as an academic subject and a professional career. Its production involves all of the technical, aesthetic, political, and economic issues at play within a given society. Over the course of ten modules, we’ll examine some of some of history’s most important examples that show how architecture engages, mediates, and expresses a culture’s complex aspirations.”

For alumni, the course will offer a study of the interplay of issues that are fundamental to thinking about architecture. One of the greatest challenges of this course was adapting the material to be a stimulating learning experience for those both with and without a background in architecture. For alumni who have studied architectural history, this is an opportunity to bring a different perspective to the material from viewing through the lens of professional practice and experiencing how a traditional GSD course translates to an online platform. Additionally, GSD alumni have the unique opportunity to join a GSD alumni cohort, which can facilitate rich discussions, enable an exchange of ideas around the course material, and potentially create networking opportunities. (Once alumni enroll in the free course, navigate to this page to register for the alumni cohort discussion forum.)

Critical to the production of this course are two GSD alumnae: Lisa Haber-Thomson MArch ’09, PhD ’17 served as producer, while animations by Helen Han MArch ’08 brought buildings and concepts to life. Haber-Thomson, who is a Ph.D. candidate in Architectural History and Theory, embraced the challenge to translate content taught in a classroom setting to an online platform. “The exercises were originally developed with GSD students in mind,” she says, “and were carefully modified to maintain rigor and teach the same core competencies.” Her prior experience as a video and sound editor for the Science Media Group and as a freelance animator and sound designer was highly beneficial for this project. For Han, this course was also a natural fit for her talents. After the GSD, she founded an architectural video and animation company—Helen Han Creative. According to Haber-Thomson, “Han’s experience was ideal for this medium; her work skillfully brings to life the principles that are being illustrated by Hays, Naginski, and Picon.” Additionally, dozens of GSD students were engaged in testing and optimizing content. For students to be able to gauge their level of comprehension, comprehensive self-evaluation criteria were developed for each module.

Those interested in participating in The Architectural Imagination can view the syllabus and enroll at

Trailer for The Architectural Imagination

Instructions on How to Enroll and Join the GSD Cohort

To participate in the alumni cohort for the Architectural Imagination, you must:

  1. Enroll in the course through edX.
  2. Join the cohort by contacting the GSD using the online form provided.

Step 1: Enroll in the Course

  1. Navigate to the course enrollment page.
  2. Select the “Enroll Now” button.
  3. Create an edX account, if you don’t have one already. (If you already have an edX account, sign in to complete the enrollment process.)
  4. Verify your new edX account’s email address. Email verification is required.
  5. Once you’ve verified your account, you will be asked if you want to audit the course for free (via the “Audit This Course” option) or earn a verified certificate (via the “Pursue a Verified Certificate” option). Note: You do NOT need to upgrade to the verified track in order to join the cohort.

Step 2: Join the Cohort

  1. Complete and submit the following online form.