When Harvard Went Modern

When Harvard Went Modern

The understated art of the Bauhaus at Harvard Law

Credit: Bob O'Connor

One hundred years ago, in 1919, a German school of design addressed a crucial housing shortage. Led by founder Walter Gropius, Weimar’s Bauhaus school used industrial materials to create in Germany what it called “minimum dwellings,” functional and economical housing built in spare, modernist style.

Following World War II, American universities faced a similar shortage, as veterans returned to their studies. In 1948, Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold ’28 S.J.D. ’29 turned to Gropius. He commissioned the architect, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1937, to create the first Harvard graduate residence center, radically expanding what many saw as the Harvard style.

In what was then the law school’s largest fundraising campaign, $1.5 million was budgeted for the project: a complex (also funded in part by the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) that would include a dining hall, a cafeteria, and lounge areas (for many years called the Harkness Commons and now the Caspersen Student Center), as well as shared outdoor space and seven dorms (two for GSAS students), all of which are still in use today.

As part of the project, Gropius (who was teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design) insisted on a budget for art as well, commissioning site-specific works from an international roster of sculptors, painters, and textile artists, including Josef and Anni Albers, Hans Arp, and Gyorgy Kepes, as well as American Richard Lippold. Several of these artworks remain in place today, while others—including newly cleaned and restored works by Joan Miró and Herbert Bayer—are part of the exhibit “The Bauhaus and Harvard” at the Harvard Art Museums, Feb. 8 through July 28. An exhibit of Hans Arp’s “Constellations II,” which initially graced the HLS dining hall, coincides. (Another exhibit, “Creating Community: Harvard Law School and the Bauhaus,”  will be on display at the HLS Library Caspersen Room, Feb. 4-July 31.)

Known simply as the Graduate Center when it opened on Oct. 6, 1950, Gropius’ complex stands as a turning point in American architecture, according to A. Melissa Venator, Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, who is assisting on the Bauhaus exhibition. Even The New York Times noted the commission, with a story headlined “Harvard Decides to ‘Build Modern.’” The project lent the stark style the Harvard imprimatur, and marked a bold departure from the university’s traditional neo-Georgian, ivy-covered brick. “The spirit of the age required a certain spartanness,” says Alex Krieger, Graduate School of Design Professor in Practice of Urban Design. “A moving away from the overindulgence of 19th-century architects.”

Not everyone appreciated the broad expanses of concrete, however, even though the Bauhaus structure—with its emphasis on internal support, rather than external retaining walls—allowed for large windows that took in the shared public space. The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, for example, dismissed the center as “disappointingly pedestrian.”

Even today, students on their way to lunch, passing by such works as Josef Albers’ brick relief “America,” may not recognize the genius that transformed a simple building material into a masterpiece of negative space. “Is that art?” Harish Vemuri, a 2L, commented recently, when asked about the work in the Caspersen Student Center.

“It doesn’t read as an artwork,” explains Venator. That, she says, is part of the Bauhaus approach: “that art would surround you in an almost unconscious way.”

“Harvard has a history of art being integrated in its public spaces,” says Laura Muir, research curator for academic and public programs, who curated “The Bauhaus and Harvard.” The Caspersen Student Center, she says, “is the beginning of that in a systematic way, as a total project.”

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Credit: Bob O'Connor Joan Miró, untitled ceramic mural, 1960. This mural, on view in the Caspersen Student Center dining room, replaced a painting by Miró after the artist noted that its placement—above a radiator and in direct sunlight—was far from ideal from a conservation standpoint. The original is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

close up of Miro's signature on the HLS Miro piece

Credit: Bob O’Connor

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Credit: Bob O'Connor Josef Albers, “America,” brick relief, 1950. Made of a simple building material and meticulously planned, using negative space that relies on the depth as well as the placement of the bricks, “America” was a fulfillment of a Bauhaus idea, integrating art and architecture.

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Credit: Bob O’Connor A 2004 renovation added modern updates to the modernist complex, including air conditioning and internet access. It restored some of the original details, such as the exterior limestone panels, and covered over others, such as the tile work designed by Herbert Bayer. The colorful room divider he designed remains.

Image of the World tree, a metal structure on HLS campus that has a tree-like shape

Credit: Bob O’Connor Richard Lippold, “World Tree,” metal sculpture, 1950. Lippold, the lone American among the artists contributing to the HLS project, studied at the experimental and arts-oriented Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where Gropius and many of his émigré colleagues taught. Lippold wrote in an artist’s statement: “The piece would enjoy an annual polishing (with Bon Ami cleanser), probably as a rite at the vernal equinox, and it will not resent being inhabited by one or two contemplative beings.”

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Credit: Harvard University Archives 1950: The Graduate Center extends the sweep of the Harvard Law campus.

Picture of a room in the Gropius complex in 1950 which shows the bed and bedspread and other furniture

Credit: Harvard Art Museums Textile designer Anni Albers had many conversations with Gropius about the fabrics that would eventually make up the bedspreads in the new student housing. Because of his budget, as well as the Bauhaus emphasis on utility, Gropius pushed for inexpensive and durable fabrics. Albers wanted fibers that would hold rich, saturated color. The compromise was cotton in three different plaids (see the daybed above). Two samples are on display in the Harvard exhibit.

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Credit: Harvard Art Museums Hans Arp, “Constellations II,” 1950. Gropius shared technical drawings and architectural plans with Arp and the other artists commissioned to create site-specific installations. “It was important to him that they understood the space and they responded to the architectural interiors,” says A. Melissa Venator, who has curated Hans Arp’s “Constellations II” at the Harvard Art Museums, the large-scale work’s first public viewing in 15 years. Arp, however, had difficulty envisioning the space and traveled to Cambridge at his own expense. Once here, he worked with cardboard pieces cut to scale, rearranging his abstract shapes on the dining room floor until he was satisfied. The final pieces were stained “American redwood,” continuing the Bauhaus aesthetic of referencing local—or at least native—material. After a yearlong conservation effort, the original finish has been restored.


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Credit: Harvard University Archives Herbert Bayer, “Verdure,” 1950. The painting, which takes pride of place in the Harvard Art Museums exhibit, was not always appreciated by students when it hung in the Harkness Grill Room. In 1950, The Harvard Crimson sponsored a contest inviting students to suggest interpretive titles. Suggestions ranged from “Nausea at Noon” to the prizewinner, “The Garden of Eden,” with its punning play on the piece’s lunchroom placement. Gropius served as the judge.