Toward a New GSD
A Fall 2022 Message from Dean Sarah M. Whiting
Dear GSD Alumni and Friends:
First and foremost, I welcome students, faculty, staff, and soon alumni and friends, back to the GSD. It’s hard to believe it, but this is the first semester that we are starting fully in person since spring of 2020! Not only are we back in person, but we are also back collectively and in numbers. With 280 new students joining us and 87 students returning from leaves of absence, we are clocking in this fall at 963 students, and it gives me great pleasure to announce that as of this fall, all studios once again will be located in the Trays of Gund Hall.
As many of you know, Gund Hall turns 50 years old this year, and with the Trays once again filling up with students and studios and energy, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of the Trays to Gund Hall and the pedagogy of the School. They came to mind recently as I was reading an article by our own Danielle Choi MLA ’08, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture. Entitled “Risk and Fun” (published in Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes) her text analyzes the interior landscape design of the Ford Foundation atrium in Manhattan, which opened in 1967. Danielle writes:
The newness of this fully air-conditioned environment was met by a spirit of experimentation by the Office of Dan Kiley, who synthesized different and sometimes competing frameworks of knowledge—botanical and horticultural, scientific and technical, personal and professional—through the research, design, and execution of this project, and subsequent interior landscapes.
I read this description and immediately thought of the GSD. Aside from the fact that Dan Kiley studied landscape architecture here at Harvard, an obvious comparison that came to mind is between the Ford Foundation atrium and our Trays. John Andrews—who graduated from the GSD with a Masters in Architecture in 1958—designed Gund exactly 50 years ago as a space that encourages collaboration and dialogue within and across studios, programs, students, and faculty.
The Trays were Andrews’ invention—they weren’t in the brief he had been given—and in that single design move, he defined the GSD as a school of encounters and exchanges or, to return to Danielle’s phrasing, a school that synthesizes different and sometimes competing frameworks of knowledge—knowledge arising from student and faculty design, writing, fabrication, and research.
And there is a lot of knowledge being produced here. The school has 7 different programs offering 15 different degrees, and we’re in the process of adding a new degree, the Master of Real Estate, with applications coming in this fall. Added to all of these degree programs are the Loeb Fellowship, Executive Education, the Undergraduate Architecture Studies concentration, and other Early Design Education programs. That adds up to a lot of potential synthesizing. And that is where our work lies.
To foster the most productive synthesizing, I want to take this opportunity at the start of the fall semester to lay out three priorities for the school that I hope will carry us forward in the years ahead, as the disruption of the pandemic finally begins to recede into the background. We are all doing very different work—not only across departments and programs, but even within a single program or a single class—but these three priorities bind us all together, and I hope they will help move us forward as a whole, as one School:
- First, is building on the promise of the core.
- Second, is ensuring our relevance.
- Third, is expanding our reach.
Each of our degree programs has either a core or a pro-seminar or a required sequence of courses that lays out some fundamental skills, methods, and bodies of knowledge that drive the disciplines forward. And each of those core bodies of knowledge is akin to a living organism—they are constantly evolving. This evolution has been especially important over the past few years as the urgency of addressing issues of inequity, racism, and other biases and complicities in our disciplines and professions has been laid bare. In reckoning with the cores of our disciplines, and in laboring to command their fundamentals—as students, teachers, and practitioners—we all learn to sharpen our vision, deepen our empathy, and commit to an idea, an argument, a design, and its consequences.
The cores of our various disciplines also galvanize the dialogue that drives necessary change across the School and across the world to meet the demands of the 21st century—the dialogue between each of us as individuals and the fields we comprise; and also the dialogue between innovative ideas emerging on the periphery, and the established ways of thinking that underpin the disciplines as we know them today. Through the core, we better ourselves as practitioners striving to bring resilience, justice, and beauty into the world, and we embrace the responsibility for our fields to do the same.
So, priority one: the core is not an obligation to be crossed off en route to more advanced work—it is the basis of all advanced work. It is the expertise that underlies all productive collaborations. The core of each of our programs is not static; it is constantly evolving, and one of my priorities as dean is to ensure that we turn our attention to the core, writ broadly, so that we can direct that critical, urgent, and timely evolution together.
Priority two: ensuring our relevance.
We need to hone our core expertise in order to ensure our relevance. There are too many challenges in today’s world for us to sit on the sidelines. The mounting challenges of the 21st century—from the climate crisis to spiking social inequality and the global erosion of democratic institutions—constantly require us to pursue relevance. The design and planning fields are unique in their combination of such radical interdisciplinarity with the specificity and precision of our core expertise. We synthesize expertise from across the academy and the public and private sectors to uncover possibility in convergence and to distill genuinely new ideas—a resolved design, an effective public policy, a generative history—in response to the complex circumstances of a place, its community, and its future.
It follows that design and planning have immense potential—indeed, immense responsibility—to engage what are not just urgent challenges of today, but some of the most complicated and intractable issues of our time. We construct the world around us—that’s a hefty charge, but also an extraordinarily exciting and important one. We translate into policy, program, space, and form different ways of living together that can mitigate our climate catastrophe, can suture broken communities, and can offer new ways of living and working in our contemporary world.
And finally, priority three: expanding our reach.
Our work will never have traction—it will never lead to new possibilities, it will never synthesize, it will never gain relevance—if it can’t be understood by others. Design operates in an expanded field, which means that we are constantly moving within, among, and across different crowds—what the scholar-activist Edward Said once referred to as “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community” (published in Critical Inquiry). Said lamented the overspecialization of literary critics, because he felt that they wrote only for other literary critics, whereas politicians and journalists communicated to the entire world. Our different fields here at the GSD are always already imbricated in the world. Because of that, we need to pay attention to the crowds we surf among, so that we can best situate our work among constituencies, communities, stakeholders, audiences, and even, to use Said’s term, opponents.
For in addition to designing the world around us, we’re also constructing the terms that explain that world to those who have to construct it with us—technically, structurally, socially, economically, and politically. If we can’t translate our ideas across all of these registers, we won’t be able to get anything done. Design is the most public of the arts—we need to be comfortable operating in that public realm if we want to be effective scholar-activists.
Design, planning, policy, and history can’t be done alone, and none of our work can be done quickly: gaining the expertise of the core, ensuring our relevance, and expanding our audience all takes time and patience. Time is admittedly a weird concept in the best of times, but in these past 2.5 years it’s been downright wacky. We all complain that we don’t have control over time —and we often let that complaint become reality by not taking the time to think through what needs to be done when and how, which puts us in the position of rushing willy-nilly to the drumbeat of deadlines.
If Covid slowed the world down, and if racist murders, Supreme Court decisions, and global disasters have recently simply stopped the world in its tracks, one can say that these past years have given us cause for reflection. Patience is the attitude that makes it possible for us to comprehend, learn from, navigate, and build on the experience of these past 2.5 years. Patience is also the quality that enables us to gain our expertise, question its foundations, determine our relevance, and engage our audiences. Finally, patience is simply another way of saying take care—take the time to take care of yourselves, and take care of those around you.
These three priorities—building on the promise of the core, ensuring our relevance, and expanding our reach—can maybe best be understood as common sense, especially for a community of 963 students, 182 faculty, and 170 staff, who live and work together daily at the GSD. Ours is a big and extraordinary community, but its size is also why I ask that we all take care to care for one another. To thrive here, we must cultivate an ethics—a common sense, and a sense of our commons—in what we do as individuals and as a school to push our fields toward ethical forms of practice. As designers, planners, historians, critics, and educators, we strive to shepherd the world toward a future that we envision for a better tomorrow. To succeed, we must cultivate a keen sense of ethical judgment, an expansive sense of empathy, and a vigilant sense of our shared social contract as global citizens—our contract with one another here at the GSD, and across this fragile planet that we all inhabit.
I’ll close by sharing that I’m honored to be part of the community that is the GSD. I look forward to connecting with many of you at the GSD Comeback: Alumni & Friends Celebration, which will take place on our campus on Sept. 16 and 17. I look forward to talking more with you about how we can collectively make progress on these three priorities, and about other ways that we can move our school and our fields forward.
Sarah M. Whiting
Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture
Harvard University Graduate School of Design