Dean’s year in review: Highlights from 2016–2017

Dear GSD Alumni and Friends,

As the spring semester culminates in an exciting range of studios and thesis reviews, and as the next class of graduates prepares to embark on new careers, launch new ventures, and drive new lines of research, I write to share highlights of the important work produced at the GSD over the past year.

Mohsen MostafaviI am also pleased to report that in the most recent DesignIntelligence ranking of America’s best architecture and landscape architecture programs, the GSD maintained its position at the top. As you know, the results of these rankings are referenced by prospective students and potential employers of our graduates, and as a result they have a material effect on the School and its community. The surveys for the next rankings in architecture and landscape architecture are now open, so if you are in a leadership or hiring position in a design-related field, I encourage you to submit a response and share your experience by the deadline, which is May 26th.

Our current ranking, I am proud to say, continues to be reflected in the outstanding quality of the School’s output. Its excellence and integrity are grounded in the School’s values and its direct engagement with the ethical dimension of what we do. As a School, we are committed to the transformative power of design and its capacity to create just and equitable cities. It is my pleasure to share with you a summary of what we have accomplished this year toward that end, and what we look forward to achieving in the semesters and years ahead.

A Leader on the Future of the City

Across departments, the GSD extended its deep analysis of global urbanization and the multitude of its effects. Indeed, we aspire to be the world’s intellectual leader on the future of the city, and we continue to develop and refine new studios, public programs, and a host of other research initiatives to make progress on this ambition.

In studio work completed over the past year, students and faculty investigated a series of specific urban contexts and produced substantive proposals aimed at bettering the lives of their residents. Our studios included site visits to 37 cities in the U.S. and around the world. In conjunction with AECOM, we organized a series of option studios themed geographically around Southeast Asia. In spring 2016, the series studied Jakarta, and this spring we turned our focus to Kuala Lumpur. The third installment, scheduled for next fall, will focus on Manila. In the Department of Landscape Architecture, faculty and students designed innovative renewal solutions for a section of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou. Option studios in the Department of Urban Planning and Design covered specific sites from Savannah, Georgia, to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Palava City in Mumbai, India, and topics ranging from urban ecology to affordable housing and questions of shelter and displacement.

Working side-by-side with city leaders and local communities is an important part of equipping students with the skill and insight to make an immediate and positive impact on the world. This year, we hosted an impressive roster of policy makers and city leaders, who contributed to the School’s pedagogy as review panelists, speakers, and design critics. Among them, we welcomed the mayors of three major cities to address students and faculty: Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. In addition, Stephen Ross and Richard Rogers, among others, spoke as part of our public program, and we organized conferences and exhibitions on Tokyo and Barcelona, examining these cities as case studies in designing the future city. Taken together, all of this activity provided a rich combination of formats, each of which connected to the School’s core pedagogy in a unique way, supplementing our studios and seminars with exposure to decision-making in urban policy at the highest levels.

Following the talk by Richard Rogers at the GSD, we launched a new fellowship program based in London at Rogers’ Wimbledon House, a home he designed in 1968 and that he and his wife, the celebrated chef Ruthie Rogers, donated to the GSD for this purpose. The fellowship serves as an international platform to convene experts and practitioners from a broad range of disciplines whose work is focused on the built environment and its capacity to advance the quality of human life. In March, we welcomed the inaugural fellows at the house. Located near some of the world’s finest resources for research in urbanism, the program represents both an international extension of the GSD’s physical footprint and a symbol of the School’s commitment to engaging issues faced by cities globally.

While the purview of the School’s work is global, it is important, however, to emphasize that our focus on the future of the city is buttressed by a clear framework for engagement with local communities, starting with our own here in Cambridge and neighboring Allston and Boston. Toward that end, a series of studios proposed solutions for Cambridge’s Central Square neighborhood and Boston’s Harbor Islands. In partnership with Harvard’s central administration, the GSD also led a design-build competition for a public commons in neighboring Allston, offering our students an opportunity to undertake a built project while considering its impact on the neighborhood. Throughout our work in Allston and other communities around Boston and Cambridge, close communication with residents remains an essential part of the design process.

Amid this constellation of new and developing projects, the Office for Urbanization extended its research on Miami Beach, and together with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health we are excited to enroll the first class in a new joint degree in health and urbanization. As the work we produce through our portfolio of city-focused initiatives continues to grow, we also look forward to formalizing a broad, institutional platform—Future of the American City—which will give institutional structure and support to the School’s energies focused on the future of urban America. I look forward to sharing further developments as we make progress.

Design Research for a Better World

As many of you know, the GSD’s commitment to design research has grown substantially in recent years. We aim to be deliberate and constructive with this growth, asking questions about which issues lend themselves best to our interdisciplinary approach, and how we can maximize opportunities for students and faculty alike.

Alongside the tradition of individual faculty research, our option studios have emerged as domains of collaborative investigation around specific themes, geographies, and strategies. We have been able to offer option studios that vary in scale, from the streetscape to the territorial; that engage with industry, technique, and social justice; and that examine sites located in the far reaches of the globe as well as our own local communities. Examples of this include the AECOM studios and a three-part studio series in collaboration with Knoll, examining professional work environments. The comprehensive approach of the option studio model is unmatched by any other school, and it is key in preparing our students as leaders and shapers of the built environment.

Innovation remains a cornerstone of our research agenda as well, and some of our most deeply interdisciplinary research has been focused on creating entirely new forms of knowledge. Soon, the Center for Green Buildings and Cities will break ground on its “House Zero,” an experiment in transforming existing buildings into energy-efficient, energy-producing structures. Our partnership with Peking University through the Ecological Urbanism Collaboration has continued with a series of research and summer study projects. Our Master in Design Engineering (MDE) program, offered in collaboration with Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, concluded its inaugural year with a series of design-driven innovations in global food systems. We also named the first two recipients of the John E. (Jack) Irving Innovation Fellowship, a new program intended to support outstanding, cutting-edge research conducted by select recent graduates.

Dynamic Public Programming 

The GSD’s public programs and exhibitions continue to offer opportunities to bring new ideas from a wide variety of disciplines into the life of the School, and they also offered valuable community-building moments. Talks by artists Christo and Jeff Koons and writer Jonathan Franzen—all made possible by the Rouse Visiting Artist Program—brought excitement and creative energy to Gund. They reaffirmed the GSD as a destination for rich conversations at the intersection of the humanities and design, both for the GSD community and for students and faculty across Harvard. This March, we held a special celebration for I.M. Pei (MArch ’46), marking his centennial birthday with personal reflections given by Henry Cobb (AB ’47, MArch ’49), Bart Voorsanger (MArch ’64), and others. This fall, we will host a conference intended to produce some of the first critical engagements with Pei’s prodigious career.

Our roster of talks and lectures made room for serious pedagogical discourse as well. Rem Koolhaas presented in October, touching on architecture’s role in the global political climate. This spring, we convened an exciting panel of experts, including Harvard Business School’s Rajiv Lal, Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal, and DACRA CEO and President Craig Robins, for a discussion on the relationship between the physical and digital retail space. While much of our learning takes place in the classroom and in the studio, opportunities to hear from such leaders visiting from outside the School create unique learning moments that supplement our core pedagogy.

Our exhibition program extends this scope of interdisciplinarity. Exhibitions on contemporary Chinese architecture, Barcelona’s urban development, and the work of Atelier Bow-Wow reflect the GSD’s global focus. We were especially honored to mount an exhibition in collaboration with Harold Koda (MLA ’00), former Curator in Chief of the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and landscape architect Ken Smith (MLA ’86). The exhibition, “Designing Planes and Seams,” explored the shared concerns of landscape architecture and clothing design, how surface materials and process engage with time, space, structure, and the environment. The exhibition serves as a poignant example of how much we stand to gain from thinking across fields and representing our work in dynamic and immersive ways. It represents a commitment to design, creativity, and imagination shared by our students as well, a commitment that was on full display in the ninth edition of our Platform exhibition. In organizing the show, the student-faculty curatorial team invoked the concept of the “still life” as a device to arrange compositional groupings of student work from across the School. Establishing spatial juxtapositions between projects from across disciplines, the exhibition made visible a multiplicity of contexts and perspectives. Through such relational techniques and exercises of the imagination, new ideas emerge.

Looking Forward

In closing, I want to share a few more exciting programs and initiatives coming up next year and beyond. In the fall, many GSD faculty and alumni will be participating in the second iteration of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which will be curated by GSD alumni Sharon Johnston (MArch ’95) and Mark Lee (MArch ’95). As we look to the future of online education, we are also considering how design pedagogy might be reshaped in the digital era, calling on the expertise of our faculty who teach in both the degree and executive education programs. This year we took a bold step in this direction with Michael Hays’s online course, “The Architectural Imagination,” which immediately became one of the most sought after courses at HarvardX, and which I encourage you to check out.

We are exploring possibilities for expanding our physical footprint to better respond to the School’s commitment to innovative teaching and research. Expansion will also enable us to address the spatial demands of our increased scope of activity and growing community.

Our faculty hiring has kept pace with our expanding student body. While the work of several search committees is still in progress, we have finalized appointments or promotions of 11 faculty. A number of exciting appointments are in the pipeline, about which we will send out a separate announcement this fall.

A few months from now, we will welcome another promising new class of students to Cambridge. Our most recent admissions cycle marks another successful round of recruitment with an exceptionally high yield rate. Our international yield rate remains very high despite widespread anxiety about U.S. immigration, a testament to the quality of our work and the impact our faculty, students, and alumni are making in the world.

As always, I look forward to visiting with many of you in the next year at a reunion on October 13-14 for classes ending in 2’s and 7’s, or at one of our many alumni events. It was a pleasure to see over 100 alumni visit Gund Hall last fall to celebrate their 5th to 50th reunions. In April, Martin Bechthold (DDes ’01) and the DDes program welcomed over a quarter of the 180 DDes alumni for the program’s 30th anniversary. With one year remaining for the Grounded Visionaries campaign, fundraising for student financial aid and fellowships remains a high priority for the School. Such support is crucial to the GSD’s ability to continue attracting the most talented students from around the world.

If you are in the Boston area next fall, I encourage you to visit Gund Hall and join the conversation at one of our public lectures. I am grateful for your committed support of the School and wish you an enjoyable and productive summer.

Best regards,




Mohsen Mostafavi