Enhancing the GSD’s Global Impact with Option Studios
As the premier design school, the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) has a legacy of leadership, innovation, and social responsibility. Fueled by the visionary leadership of Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, leading-edge faculty, and a talented student body, the GSD is increasingly exploring vital, global issues through its growing span of option studios. Utilizing a comprehensive approach, the studios integrate multiple design disciplines with economic, social, and civic dimensions to make transformative contributions through design, from insights spanning ecological urbanism and citymaking to advancements in representation and the future of technology.
When Dean Mohsen Mostafavi arrived at the GSD less than a decade ago, he brought with him a vision to elevate the role of design as a catalyst for change with a strong social dimension. “The GSD must draw on our rich history of design innovation to address global challenges of the future,” said Dean Mohsen Mostafavi. “We must be both grounded and visionary, exploring lofty ideals and pragmatic realities. We must seek simple answers to spectacular questions. We must encourage wild creativity alongside rigorous practice. Giving form to this dynamic tension of ideas is as important a role as any with which we are tasked.”
The GSD must draw on our rich history of design innovation to address global challenges of the future.
— Dean Mohsen Mostafavi
GSD faculty and students are global citizens and cultural ambassadors. Through both pedagogy and research, faculty and students pursue thematic inquiries focused on issues central to the global community – urbanism, sustainability, the digital world, and regional development. Since the School was founded, the primary vehicle for teaching advanced design at the GSD has been the studio model. Option studios provide students the opportunity to explore a wide range of design topics under the supervision of prominent practitioners. Each year advanced students engage in site-specific studios for a semester. Students participating in each studio develop individual or small group solutions to a single design problem, creating a wealth of research and a broad spectrum of implementable solutions born of a diversity of perspective.
Most option studios provide a rich multi-disciplinary experience and the opportunity for students to interact with real constraints and local experts. Students and faculty regularly travel around the globe to conduct site research, meet local experts, and explore the context of their work. In the last decade, the percentage of studios situated outside the United States has expanded to 65%. The growth of studios in developing cities, such as Xiamen, China and Jakarta, Indonesia has heightened the study of increasingly inequitable economic conditions and is expanding the GSD’s global impact. Spring 2016 offered 20 option studios at sites ranging from international cities like Rotterdam, Mumbai, Jakarta, Tokyo, and London. The global option studios allow students to emerge from the GSD ready to engage with global challenges in a world where design plays a vital role.
The interdisciplinary traveling studio model exposes students to a set of new and challenging architectural and urban conditions, forcing them to redefine and expand their design toolkit.
— Felipe Correa MAUD ’03, Associate Professor and Director of the Urban Design Program
The GSD is committed to transformative pedagogy that expand the School’s impact through longer term inquiries examining the most pressing challenges of our era around the globe. In the past decade, the School has successfully pioneered and refined an innovative, three-year option studio model, including a series completed in fall 2014, which studied three Chinese cities over three years. A second series starting with Jakarta: Models of Collective Space for the Extended Metropolis in spring 2016 taught by Felipe Correa MAUD ’03, associate Professor and Director of the Urban Design Program, examined the role of new mass transit infrastructure as a driver for new models of collective space. According to Correa, this studio model helps to widen the discourse and the impact: “The interdisciplinary traveling studio model exposes students to a set of new and challenging architectural and urban conditions, forcing them to redefine and expand their design toolkit. The critical and imaginative perspectives brought by GSD students and faculty to a city like Jakarta not only opens up new ways of addressing longstanding problems but also provokes new discussions about society and space.” The studio model is beneficial to students, faculty, and the local community as well as design professionals. “There are mutual benefits for the professional community in having a close relationship with academia, especially for AECOM with the GSD,” said Sean Chiao MAUD ’88, president of AECOM Asia Pacific. AECOM, a global design company which provides professional engineering, consulting and project management services for infrastructure projects, sponsored both three-year option studios. “Our collaboration during the China and Jakarta studios has allowed students and faculty the opportunity to build stronger knowledge about global trends, especially the growth of urbanization in the developing world, and forge community partnerships while working in concert with the local community. Throughout the process, AECOM has been inspired by the GSD students resulting in a rise in innovation during our day-to day-practice.”
Common Frameworks: Rethinking the Developmental City in China, sponsored by the AECOM Fund for China Studios, was led by Christopher Lee, associate professor in practice of Urban Design. The project united research on the challenges facing China in the realm of architecture and urbanism with design projects. “Asserting that the megaplot has dissolved the idea of the city as a common space, the studio projects present an alternative urban strategy, conceiving a common framework for housing, work space, nature, and civic functions,” wrote Lee about the course. The three studios Xiamen: The Megaplot, Macau: Cross Border City, and Taiquai: The Countryside as City were each semester-long inquiries engaging twelve advanced students. The series spawned a symposium hosted at Tsinghua University in Beijing, three studio reviews along with three publications. Additionally, the research and proposals by the students appeared in an exhibition at the Architecture School of Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2014.
According to Aanya Chugh MArch ’14, a student in the Xiamen studio, “Despite much of the studio remaining polemical, AECOM’s feedback has provided a realistic and critical cultural dimension that firmly grounds the projects in the particularities of Xiamen’s development.” She valued the discussions with planning officials arranged from AECOM to further learn about the dynamic between the government, developer, and designers: “These interactions revealed that the role of design was subordinate to the acquisition of capital.”
The other jointly selected cities for the second and third studios after Jakarta are Kuala Lumpur and Manila, which will expose students to different geographies, climates, populations, and cultures while they tackle integrated urban, economic, and political challenges through design.
“The students did very well in tackling complex issues around public works and urban development in Jakarta in relation to the new Jakarta Mass Transit System,” said Nancy Lin MArch ’97, chief of staff for Sean Chiao, when reflecting upon May’s final studio review. “Through projects situated at five sites, the student groups created opportunities to tackle the same problems in completely different ways. Their provocative approaches promoted exactly what I was hoping to see from these projects— discussion around culture differences. Students were able to think outside the framework of familiar US cities, which was one of the biggest gains from this studio.”
In spring 2016, over two dozen alumni returned to the GSD to offer their expertise as studio final review critics and attendees including: Ila Berman MDesS ’91, DDes ’93, dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, attended Jakarta: Models of Collective Space for the Extended Metropolis. Mark Pasnik MDesS ’95 of pinkcomma gallery and over,under, and Evan Douglis MArch ’90, dean of the Rensselaer School of Architecture, critiqued the Jorge Silvetti’s studio, Territorio Guarani III, the third studio investigating architectural strategies and modes of intervention in the culturally and environmentally rich Territorio Guarani region of the South American. Gabriel Smith MArch ’92 of Thomas Phifer & Partners and Michael Kubo MArch ’06, also of pinkcomma gallery and over, under, were guest critics at Work Environments 2: Glass Works, taught by Florian Idenburg with Duncan Scovil. This second of three studios is sponsored by the furniture company Knoll examines the disruptive transformations that occur globally in work environments. Through their experience as studio critics and attendees, the alumni provided vital perspectives to students and had the opportunity to witness innovative studio work.
The growth in collaboration across sectors to guide research inquiries and advance the global discourse on design through option studios has been extraordinary. By closely linking pedagogy to the School’s ongoing research themes, the option studios have gained momentum to tackle larger problems.