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Disappointments with Harvard's Graduate School of Design
by Katy Purviance on 08/19/10 @ 01:58:46 pm
Categories: Events, Grad School | 2173 words | 7542 views

Yesterday I discussed my disappointments with Harvard’s Graduate School of Design with Curtis B Wayne on his radio program, Burning Down the House.

Also on the show were Prof Roderick L Knox of Cooper Union and the architect Matthew Arnold.

You can listen to the show right on the Heritage Radio Network.

To prepare for the show, I was asked to be ready to tell about some of the bullshit I experienced at the GSD. I wrote up about 6 pages of notes. I only got to use a couple of my tales. I thought I’d share the rest with you. Think of it as a behind the scenes treat.


They have a weird way of wanting us to be creative. The way I work, is I feed my brain. I get my brain drunk on the things that interest me, that delight me. I travel. I read things that fascinate me. I talk to interesting people. I try to keep my brain satiated. Then, when I have a design challenge, I give my brain the problem, and then I go about my business, and usually by the next day, or even in the middle of the night, my brain says, “Okay, here’s a solution.” And it will show me the entire idea in detail. It will zoom in and zoom out. It will pan and rotate. And then I draw it up, or design it in the computer, or make models. And in every art class, or design class, I’ve ever taken, I was the best. It was such a wonderful feeling to create such delightful things so easily. It felt so good to walk into my studio at the University of Idaho on pin-up days, and it was like, “What did Katy do this time?”

How they want you to create at the GSD is very different. They want you to sit at your desk and labor as long as it takes, methodically working out every iteration of an idea that you can until you can’t see straight and your legs go numb from sitting so long. I hated it. If I try to pull an idea out of my subconscious, it essentially aborts the idea, and a partially-cooked idea is no good to me.

I remember talking to a few classmates first semester about this, and one girl told me that this isn’t the way she likes to create either, but hey, we’re at Harvard, so let’s just try it their way and try to learn something from it.

So okay, that’s a good point. I tried it their way. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t happy with my work. I felt like I was accomplishing a small percentage of what I could be accomplishing, but I’m also thinking, okay, maybe this will teach me something useful.

The problem is, this method requires copious amounts of output, but leaves little time for input, what I called feeding my brain. After a while, it’s like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.

I keep at this until maybe about mid-semester of the Spring. I have a heart to heart with myself, and I’m like, this method just is not working for me. I really want to go back to my usual way of creating. And the way I had to do that was to feed my brain. So I took the day off from my 7-day-a-week school schedule and I walked into Boston. I took pictures of some buildings that I liked. I love Boston, and I just focused on enjoying myself. That’s it. And in the late afternoon, I felt pretty good, so I went home, started up AutoCAD, and just like that, drew up plans, sections, and elevations for a project that I had been stuck on. I was more productive in 4 hours – four hours of easy work – than I had been in my entire time at the GSD.

I plotted it all out the next morning in time for studio, and my critic was very happy with what I had done. So I think to myself, ah, we’re getting somewhere. So I told her about my method. She called it the Boston Method, and she encouraged me to keep doing it. I was elated. And I had the best review of my time at the GSD.

But you know what, when I did it again a couple of weeks later for our final project, she was upset with me for missing class. When we started this final project, despite how happy she was how it worked out on the other project, she continued to want me to draw out every iteration of the idea as it progressed. Even though my method works, she insisted that I go back to this laborious way of doing things.

So when I missed class again so that I could simply, easily, and quickly move forward on this project, she was upset, she told me I was behind, that I wouldn’t finish in time, and without any input on my part, had decided that she was going to give me an Incomplete and that I could finish studio at the end of Summer. Which means that the few weeks I had left to complete the project would be stretched out for another 3 and a half months.


The first studio project of my Harvard experience was the Odd Fellows Hall in Cambridge. We were supposed in insert an elevator into this building, so I thought it would be a good idea to go take a look at it and see where the best place would be. I found the building, and my reaction was: there should NOT be an elevator in this building! It had the most beautiful staircases I’d ever seen. On the right side of the building, the stairs start by circling up clockwise. You get a couple of stories up, and the stairs reverse direction, so that now you’re ascending counter-clockwise. And on the left side of the building, you’ve got the mirror image of another staircase. They’re absolutely beautiful. And when you look at the plans, all of the rooms fit together so intelligently, it seemed like a shame to disturb any of that with an elevator.

Back at the GSD, our critic told us to “go crazy.” He even suggested knocking out all the walls and starting over.

The way they wanted us to do our drawings, they kept telling us to “diagram” things. I still don’t know what that means. My classmates did diagrams by, for example, drawing lines on the plans connecting the midpoint of every window together, you know, that kind of thing. Some totally arbitrary thing that reduces the complexity of the building down to some meaningless lines. And then they would use those lines to generate a new set of plans that had only a tenuous relationship to the actual building.

My classmates came up with some pretty crazy designs, alright. It looked like they were designing spaces that would be used to psychologically torture inmates. And I just couldn’t do it. I had visited the building, and it made me heartsick that we were supposed to destroy it just for a stupid elevator.

I didn’t see the point of doing these diagrams, and it seemed like a really ridiculous way to design, but I was also under a lot of pressure to make a set of diagrams anyway. So I diagrammed a person’s movement through the building, which is not in straight lines, nor is it possible to predict a person’s precise movement through the space. It shouldn’t be. But because my diagram diagrammed something arbitrary and unpredictable instead of arbitrary and unchanging, the critics gave me a lot of grief during the final review. And they equally berated me over my drawings in which I carefully positioned the elevator so as to cause the least amount of disturbance possible. I felt like they wanted me to be crazy and ridiculous for the sake of being crazy and ridiculous. I walked away thinking, Man, this place is really fucked up.

I attended GreenBuild 2008 in Boston, and I went to a panel discussion on architectural education. In short, I was outraged. RMJM Hillier polled 20 of the top architecture schools. The research found that students wanted to learn about green design…and professors thought they were doing a GREAT job in teaching green design…and the firms that hired the graduates though that these grads knew very little about green design.


Partway through spring semester, we students were having a discussion in studio. One student raised the point that the things that drew him to be an architect were not the things that were being taught in our program. A few others agreed. It was true for me as well.

I often felt that the only way that I could learn what I went to the GSD to learn was if I skipped class – in order to create time – and went to the library to read about the topics that actually interested me. And whenever I did this, I was mad. I couldn’t help but think, “I am getting tens of thousands of dollars in debt when I could’ve just bought a couple of books.”

Anyway, our critic came into the studio, and we shared our concern with her. She laughed and said, “You’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of your life before you ever do what you want to do.” REALLY???


I actually liked my Energy, Technology, & Building class a lot because I am very interested in designing climate-appropriate houses. As a treat for the last day of class, we got to take a field trip to an old building that had been restored and was being used as an office building. It had some level of LEED certification. And you know I’m not a big fan of LEED, but it was really nice, really educational, to walk around inside a building that got it’s daylighting and natural ventilation right. It was great. I thought it was simply the most useful thing we had done all semester – well actually it was a half-semester course. And I told our professor that we should have a class that was nothing but field trips to buildings. He agreed with me – he thought was a great idea, but he seemed to say something along the lines that such a class wouldn’t work.


We had five studio projects fall semester, and as an afterthought, they thought maybe that was too much. So spring semester we had three, and two of those were libraries. The first project, we had to design a structure out of brick.

It turned out that the project was NOT about building something that could rest securely on a foundation of firmness, commodity, and delight. It turned out the project was about seeing what kind of ridiculous things you could make a brick do.


Spring semester we had this intolerable class called Scripting. It’s full name was Digital Design: Algorithms & Scripts. It was three hours every Tuesday night. It’s essentially a class where we were to learn to program 3D modeling software such that it would automatically create architectural form. Sounds cool, no? The problem was, the professor tried to teach us how to do this by showing us Power Point slides of what the code looked like, in tiny, tiny font.

I learned HTML & CSS at the University of Idaho, and though that was about 10 years ago, I learned it well enough that I still know how to do it, and I have made money off from these skills. Those classes were taught in a very different way: the professor, Frank Cronk, would spend about 20 minutes sitting with each student, guiding us, talking about life, talking about all the great things we would one day do, and answering our questions.

For this scripting class at the GSD, the entire first year class – about 60 students – took the class at once. Partway through the class, we had a special study session led by an older student. We were all so lost. One of my classmates said, “This is a foreign language, and it’s like you’re trying to teach us sentences. We haven’t even learned the letters yet.”

I got one question right on the midterm, and I don’t know what I got on the final. I do know, however, that the final exams were due the day after the deadline for final grades. I passed the class.


We had twenty credit’s worth of required classes each semester. For fun (irony? cruelty?) they hosted a sleep expert to come in and tell us how important, how vitally, critically important it was for us to get regular, adequate sleep. He told us all about how unhealthy and psychologically damaging it was to be habitually sleep-deprived. No matter, we still had twenty credit’s worth of required classes each semester.

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