Site and Shelter: Design for the ‘Whole Landscape’

Five Fields, Lexington, MA, 1952.

Five Fields, Lexington, MA, 1952.

by Charlotte Leib (MDes '19) — Recipient of “Best Paper on Housing” prize, awarded by Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University

This thesis examines the ways that modernist architects, landscape architects, planners, and government agencies began to conceptualize the built environment through the terms ‘site’ and ‘shelter’ in the first decades of the twentieth century. It begins by tracing how the site and shelter discourse coalesced, looking in particular at the role that the American magazine Shelter played in bringing the ideas of European modernism to readers across the Atlantic. It then examines how the site and shelter discourse found its way into design pedagogy by introducing readers to the housing design, financing, and site planning ideas that former Chief City Planner of Berlin, Martin Wagner, imbued to his students in his course, Site and Shelter, which was a requirement for all first-year architecture, landscape architecture, and planning students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1939 to 1941. It goes on to examine how Wagner and his colleague at the GSD, Walter Gropius, furthered the site and shelter discourse through their teaching and practice in the US, first working together and then splitting ways as they developed their ‘total architecture’ and ‘whole landscape’ concepts. The thesis concludes by highlighting the efforts of several of Gropius and Wagner’s students who created a non-profit housing corporation, ‘Site and Shelter’, in 1948, to experiment with the communitarian and proto-ecological housing design ideals that they had learned in Wagner’s eponymous course and in Gropius’ design studios.