Occasionally I get emails from people asking about what it's like in the GSD's M.Arch.I program, if I enjoy Harvard, if the people really are evil and competitive, or what it's like living in Cambridge/Somerville.
The best way to find out all these answers is to visit our school during our Fall Open House for prospectives, or attend the spring events and otherwise make use of the resources and contacts that are made available to newly admitted students. But not everybody can make the trip out here--and given the time of year that it is, I thought it might be fun to try to answer any questions that you might have (or, if I can't answer them, to direct you to someone who can).
So, if you have any questions at all, please post them in the comments section below anytime over the next few weeks (until mid-April), and I'll give my best shot at answering them in this space as they come in!
I'll start with some queries that were sent to me an embarrassingly long time ago. The people who asked these questions might have gone to architecture school, graduated, gotten their licenses, and opened their own studios by now--so I'm really sorry for the delay--but anyways.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. Of course, all of this is just one student's opinion; other GSD students and people from other schools will surely have other answers to these questions. If I get some things wrong from your point of view, please don't hate! You can post additional replies in the comments and I'm sure people will appreciate the second opinion or better information.
Q: It is said that UCLA and Southern California Institute of Architecture are the parametricist vanguard among schools (for example, see this article by Patrik Schumacher. Can some schools be called parametricism oriented, others doing research on phenomenology or some other aspects of architecture?
A: My coverage of the first ‘Eclipse of Beauty’ symposium might give you the sense that Patrik Schumacher isn’t so popular at the GSD (or maybe among these east coast schools in general? If people from other schools could give us a sense of the Schumacher-love index in other places, that'd be great.) There is a general sense here that parametricism shouldn’t be engaged as a style, in the way that digital culture in the 1990s became a kind of swoopy, blobby visual style, but rather that parametric are a powerful set of tools that can be used in a variety of ways, that it should be used performatively more than formally, and that it can therefore give rise to a variety of forms or styles. You could look at GSD professors like Farshid Moussavi, George Legendre, Gehry Technologies (not Frank Gehry’s architecture studio, but the work of people like Andrew Witt at GT), Achim Menges, etc., for examples of this. The west coast is often characterized as being more light-hearted, visual, and adventurous (as opposed to critical) in its form-making--maybe more along the lines of Schumacher? I don’t want to make this into a kind of B.I.G. (as in Notorious, not Bjarke) vs. 2Pac thing, and I certainly don’t know enough about specific west coast schools to characterize them…but there are different viewpoints on what the future of parametric should be right now, and from what I can tell, the GSD is one of the schools at the forefront of these discussions and of this work from the points (emphatically plural) of view that are taken here.
As for phenomenology. This is close to my heart, as this is the intellectual tradition I was exposed to in my graduate work in history and theory of architecture at McGill University with Alberto Pérez-Gómez. I would say that few, if any, of the major professional programs are dealing directly with phenomenology, in terms of its tradition from continental philosophy, right now. The more contemporary way into these questions from the practice side seems to come up in questions of affect and perception. Personally (and this is a very personal view), what I am most invested in right now, in this area, is in investigations of how current cognitive science informs how we can understand ourselves as embodied within our physical/social contexts: the GSD's Sanford Kwinter has written incisively in this area, so I'm really glad to have been able to study with him (and people that Sanford brings here, like Olafur Eliasson and Robert Irwin); and in other Harvard schools, Daniel Smail and Sean D. Kelly, among others, are also breaking new ground in their respective fields. And we have people like Elaine Scarry, who writes about beauty (among other things), and Peter Galison, who looks very seriously at the material and representational cultures of science. This has been rounding out how I am trying to understand the question of embodiment today.
But to your question more generally, I would imagine that some schools probably have a more focused set of strengths and viewpoints. But the GSD is such a big and diverse school that it's hard to say that there is one area or discourse that dominates things. Instead, you have clusters of activity and investigation around key professors and programs, and then some pretty interesting interaction within and across these clusters, with various people and initiatives across Harvard, and with the wider network of visitors and people who engage the school in some way.
Q: How would you define the paradigm of Harvard on architecture?
A: Walter Gropius shaped the GSD, so the legend goes, and the tradition of (neo-)modernism and formalism is still alive here, particularly in the architecture department. What complicates this, though, is that not only is the department of architecture really diverse in itself, but the GSD is also home to Charles Waldheim (and his crew) with all the landscape urbanism, infrastructure, etc., work in the Landscape Architecture department; and to Rahul Mehrotra’s expertise in urbanism, global economic and cultural issues, etc., in Urban Planning and Design (Mehrotra is pretty new, but his presence will surely shape the conversation at the GSD in different ways over the coming years). So nothing is studied in a vacuum here, and I think in the architecture department we benefit both from a strong disciplinary-focused type of training that is part of a certain tradition (of formalism, rationalism, geometry, materiality and fabrication, construction), as well as the wider GSD community and Harvard-MIT in general.
Q: Is there specialization among the top schools in the USA (Harvard, Yale, Columbia)? What do you think of other schools? Is there any essential difference in architecture education between the GSD and other schools?
A: First, I'd include Princeton on this list; I've heard Harvard, Yale, and Princeton being compared more frequently than Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Second...
...I'm not going to step into this minefield. I just don't know enough about the other schools to say what they're good or bad at. Plus, there are often more similarities than differences, with just shades of emphasis and degree differentiating these particular schools. Many of our professors have ties to the other schools, and these schools draw on the same applicant pool for students. If other people have comments here, by all means speak up, but for myself, I wouldn't be able to say any more than (on the one hand) the obvious things, like "Princeton is small, GSD is big, Yale is in between," or (on the other hand) repeat the stereotypes and apocryphal characterizations that we've all heard in one place or another. So I don't think I can be helpful in describing the other schools, but maybe I can say this about the GSD:
This is the banal answer that you’ll hear over and over, but I think that the GSD’s large size distinguishes the school. It’s big enough and attracts enough top people that there are many areas of strength, and you can find expertise, support, and partners-in-crime to pursue pretty much any interest here. Our theory department is strong and engaged, and there are intense areas of research in materials/digital fabrication/parametric, as well as in sustainability/building systems and simulations--and yet the school is maybe best known for technical and conceptual design skills in a wider sense. Ecological, urban, and social justice issues are also on the table in different ways and there exciting things going on in these areas even though these are not constitutive of the core of the M.Arch.I program’s pedagogy. There are many big personalities here, and strong institutional support for things to happen, but no single dogma. And our school seems to draw on the architecture communities of Boston and NYC almost equally, but also the rest of the USA and internationally (primarily the Americas, Europe, and Asia, although there are also significant ties to work in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.)
Q: Why have you chosen Harvard?
A: More or less for the things I describe above, as well as for the lively and inclusive student life and social scene, for certain professors that I knew of and really wanted to work with, both in the GSD and at Harvard, for financial aid reasons, and for the studio spaces on the trays. I also thought it’d be great to live in Cambridge/Somerville, with the brains of MIT and the urban life of Boston nearby. (And it is.)
Q: Is your program preparing you well for professional practice?
A: That’s a tough one! I would say absolutely, as well as any architecture program today can prepare students for what’s ahead. My personal thought on this is that the profession, and the ways in which people trained in architecture can impact the built environment, is really complex and changing a great deal right now--so there is nothing like a straightforward path that any school can prepare you for. I think that what graduate school should do is provide a place, resources, and provocations for students to be able to find their own positions, to develop the skills that are most relevant to them, and to start figuring out how to contribute to society and build a career. And the GSD does these things amazingly well, but I don’t think any graduate school can (or should) pretend to connect the dots for you.
Q: Could you give us an answer to the common questions which you quoted at the beginning of your post? "...if I enjoy Harvard, if the people really are evil and competitive, or what it's like living in Cambridge/Somerville."
A: I love being at the GSD and at Harvard. The intellectual community is incredible, and it's energizing and inspiring to be in a place where everyone is so passionate about what they're doing and finding ways to investigate and pursue so many different things. The only caveat here is that time is limited, of course, so you have to constantly decide that you're going to attend this lecture and not that one, or pursue one area at the expense of another, to risk spreading yourself too thin in your course selections or to miss out on things you know will be worthwhile.
As for our evil natures... :) everyone here is really driven and good at what they do. And probably everyone is also used to being at the top of the heap wherever they come from. So it can be a challenge to suddenly be in a place where you're not automatically going to shine on the basis of your existing skills and ways of working, and I think this can add to the frustration and insecurity that anybody who has pursued creative work will be familiar with. But we are not Satan's spawn. People here are actually incredibly friendly and open. To make it through the core program, you have to help your peers and ask for help, and have to commiserate and celebrate each others' successes--and for someone who has often felt like an outsider to large groups, I've actually never felt so much at home. Your studio (of twelve), your class (of around seventy) and the school (of around 600) will be your wonderful extended family--with all the dysfunction, deep ties, and love that the word "family" connotes.
Cambridge/Somerville is cool. I find that it's not a cheap place to live, although if you come from NYC or Vancouver you will certainly think it is. But it's walkable, bike-able, near to the river and to downtown Boston, and with all the necessary amenities (restaurants, bars, groceries, supply stores, parks, etc.) close at hand. Coming from Canada, there are a few things that I wasn't used to at first--such as the vast income inequality and some of the urban issues (there have been muggings in the neighborhood over this past year) this brings--but if you're coming from elsewhere in the states, I doubt you would even notice this.
As for "what it's like"...first year was the most difficult thing, academically, that I've ever been through. The schedule and projects are just grueling and I think almost everyone had to give up pretty much everything except basic life support at various times just to get through. I have found second year to be much more manageable, in part because the schedule can get more flexible, because you know your way around, and because you may start to have a clearer sense of what you really want to focus on. And next year will be even more fun, with option studios, more electives, and whatnot. So, like any similar program, the architecture program here is not something that you should commit to lightly. But for myself, it has also been one of the most valuable and enjoyable experiences of my life.
Q: From your experience which elective/courses/studios, in your opinion, have been some of the best at the GSD?
A: This is so individual, because it depends on what floats your boat. Plus, since I'm just a lowly second-year student, I've only taken a few electives and no option studios yet. So I could tell you that I happened to take (and really enjoyed) Sanford Kwinter's class on light, Michael Hays' and Erika Naginski's graduate education seminar, and Peter Galison's course (in History of Science/English) on Thomas Pynchon, but this will help you precious little. If you're trying to pick courses for the fall, what I'd do is read over the Fall 2011 course descriptions and faculty bios as they're posted over the summer and flag the ones that appeal to you most (and you can check the results from similar courses in the past from the GSD website or in Platform, which I'm guessing they sent you). Then attend the course and studio presentations when school starts; this will give you a much clearer sense of the professors' styles and the specific work that you'll be doing. And sometimes courses that seemed uninteresting in the description will suddenly be appealing (and vice versa). It also doesn't hurt to also ask around when you get here what people thought of these courses and professors--and not just if something was hot or not, but why (was it the content, the professor's personality and accessibility, the format, the time commitment, the work that came out of it, the classmates, etc.) Someone might have loved or hated a course for reasons that won't be an issue for you at all. The course evaluations are kept in the library so you can read through those when you're here in person, but really, the best way is to just chat with people as many as possible when everyone is making these same decisions.
The course lottery results (i.e. waitlist lengths) also give a sense of what courses (but not studios) were most popular this semester: http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/prefs/results.html#stu11
Q: Do incoming students usually have a strong area of emphasis/focus or is this something that is developed as they go through the program? Do they have expertise in their area of emphasis or thesis? Does their undergrad usually relate to their area of emphasis/thesis? Do these answers differ strongly between MArch I and MArch II?
A: I think this really varies, because people's backgrounds (and ages) are so diverse, and about half the incoming M.Arch.I class will have an architecture undergrad and the other half will have something else (sometimes closely related, sometimes not). Everyone has interests and particular skills coming in, but many people would still not say that they've clearly identified their area of focus. So this develops, shifts, sharpens, for all of us while we're here; if it didn't, then we could get the same experience by spending time alone in a library, traveling to see projects, or working in firms, right? Some people's undergrads probably influence their direction here more than others--for example, if you have a background in computer science and are interested in architectural software; or if you have an art practice and want to study fabrication and work on small-scale installations and things you build yourself--you might gravitate to certain things right away. But for others, the direction is not be as obvious.
In my case, I came in with very specific previous work (in my PhD), but had no idea how the questions I was pursuing there (which were related to the introduction, in archaic and classical Greece, of proportion and other mathematical ideas into what later became architectural theory) related to the contemporary built environment or discourses of architecture. And I set those questions aside in first year while I got a handle on things. But this year, I've started to find connections, and am beginning to frame the questions that will guide my next project (whenever and however that may happen, probably starting with more coursework and my design thesis here).
But yes, my sense is that M.Arch.II students come in, on average, with a slightly clearer sense of what they want to do. But many of them are probably still just here to soak up whatever they can and explore whatever strikes their fancy, and I imagine that would be every bit as fruitful.
Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around Cambridge...and once in a while, some studio and course work. Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in most cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.