Pearlman Explores Battling Ideologies of Harvard Bauhaus


Story posted May 17, 2007

The glass skyscrapers and modernist buildings that dominated U.S. cities in the 20th century can trace their origins back to a key source: the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).

Established in 1936, the school transformed architectural education from its academic Beaux-Arts bent to one based on the clean, pure designs of modernism. It quickly earned a reputation as the Harvard Bauhaus after GSD Dean Joseph Hudnut invited the kingpin of Bauhaus architecture, German architect Walter Gropius, to chair its department of architecture in 1937.

Gropius remained in that job for 15 years and came to dominate the scene. The rest, as they say, is history: Architects from the GSD transformed our cities into landscapes of glass and steel.

If Hudnut had been a more controlling force in the direction of the school and the future of architecture, however, it could have been a very different history, according to Bowdoin Lecturer in Environmental Studies Jill Pearlman.

Pearlman has just published a book on Joseph Hudnut, titled Inventing American Modernism: Joseph Hudnut, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus Legacy at Harvard (University of Virginia Press, 2007).

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A historian of modern architecture, Pearlman examines the battle of ideologies between Hudnut and Gropius, the effects of which can still be felt in modern cities. It is a story that historians have all but overlooked, in the reverenced glow of Gropius' fame.

"Hudnut brought Gropius to Harvard to transform the way architecture was taught in the U.S.," says Pearlman, "and to modernize the outmoded fields of architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture."

Many important architects sprang from the GSD during its Bauhaus years, among them I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph and two Bowdoin architects — Hugh Stubbins (Coles Tower) and Edward Larrabee Barnes (the Visual Arts Center).

"After a honeymoon period, Hudnut and Gropius began to realize that their visions of architecture and the city were very different," adds Pearlman. "Gropius' work was too sterile for Hudnut, his buildings too stark, and his urban schemes stripped of character and life."

An outspoken advocate of a more humanistic architecture, Hudnut began a public battle with Gropius for the future direction of architecture and urban design. He advocated for buildings imbued with a sense of the human spirit and for dense cities full of chaos and surprise.

Gropius ultimately won out in the battle with Hudnut and through his charismatic leadership taught a generation of architects new approaches to the decaying built environment after World War II — an era of unprecedented building.

For better or for worse, says Pearlman, Gropius helped to change the world: The urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s, and decentralized cities, are a testament to his legacy.

Still, argues Pearlman, Hudnut has had a kind of posthumous success:

"His vision of the city was one of mixed use, much more like the ideas of the urban environment we have today," she says. "He tried to prevent the course of modern architecture from taking the path it did. If Hudnut had gotten his way, modern architecture might have had a very different history."

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