Essential Architecture- New England

Harvard University Graduate Center


Walter Gropius


Cambridge, MA


1949-50 (S:0)


International Style Mid-century modern  


steel frame with brick cladding


Apartment Building
  a: view from Harkness, photo 1990, R. Ennis.
  b: dormitory, photo 1990, R. Ennis.
  c: general view, photo 1965, J. Nicholais (Drexel U.).
  d: oblique front of Harkness Commons, photo 1990, D. Stillman.
  e: dormitory, lawn, and loggia, photo 1990, D. Stillman.
The Harvard Graduate Center, also known as Harkness Commons, was commissioned of The Architects Collaborative by Harvard University in 1948. The first modern building on the campus, it was also the first endorsement of the modern style by a major university and was seen in the national and architectural presses as a turning point in the acceptance of the aesthetic in the U.S.

The Architects Collaborative, a modernist firm headed by Walter Gropius was a bold choice for the typically traditional university. Though it cannot be said that Gropius was the sole designer, those that held strongly to his ideals collaboratively designed Harkness Commons.

Coming from the Bauhaus, Gropius had been a pioneering innovator of educational architecture and many of his hallmarks can be seen years later in Harkness Commons. The physical Gropius hallmarks – large windows, flowing rooms, floating facades on raised pilotis – are all present here.

More interestingly, in justifying the placement of these innovations at Harvard, Gropius reveals his passion, and activism, for the acceptance of modernism on college campuses. Gropius makes clear statements for specific innovations, “…Our contemporary architectural conception of an intensified outdoor-indoor relationship through wide window openings and large undivided window panes has ousted the small, cage-like, “Georgian” window.” But he is also more far reaching and makes what is now a commonplace case for architectural diversity and investment in current styles: “If the college is to be the cultural breeding ground for the coming generation, its attitude should be creative, not imitative”

Gropius advocates pushing architecture forward as the society needs it. He concludes by saying that “There is no finality in architecture – only continuous change.”

The building was completed, in 1950, and was one of the first major projects in the TAC office.

Society of Architectural Historians

Special thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians
for some of the images on this page (copyright SAH).