The Cambridge School
What went on at 46 Brattle Street.
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In the years after World War II, Walter Gropius increasingly challenged architects to overcome what he saw as an outmoded ideology that “has taught us to see in the individual genius the only embodiment of true and pure art.” Instead, a philosophy of anonymity and teamwork would be the keys to progressive architectural production in an expanding postwar society. Central to this redefinition of practice was The Architects Collaborative (TAC), the firm established in 1945 by eight architects, including Gropius, and through which he practiced for nearly half of his professional career.
Founded as an experiment in collective production, TAC would eventually become the largest dedicated architectural practice in the United States, with more than 380 employees at its peak in the 1970s. In these decades, the firm’s headquarters at 46 Brattle Street formed the nucleus of a vibrant professional culture of architects and designers gathered around Harvard Square, many of them working in offices indebted to the collective atmosphere first established by TAC. Sometimes referred to by its legatees as the “Cambridge School,” it was here that the postwar evolution of Modernism would take place.
Telling the story of TAC requires confronting a persistent myth surrounding its origins: that Gropius established the firm together with “his” students. The attribution would seem to make sense given his long-standing emphasis on teamwork among holistically trained designers, an approach he promoted through collaborative workshops first at the Bauhaus and later as chair of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In his talks and writings, he said young designers must “learn to collaborate without losing their identity” in order to contribute to the urgent building tasks of their time. Drawing on these pronouncements by the prewar European “master,” historians have often taken TAC simply to be Gropius’ application of these ideas through a group of disciples who would realize this collaborative ideal in practice.
Yet the true origins of the firm were largely the opposite. The seven younger architects who came together to form TAC were linked not by an allegiance to Gropius but through a network of overlapping personal and professional connections, formed in a shared climate of social and architectural optimism. Norman (“Fletch”) Fletcher, Louis McMillen, Robert McMillan, and Ben Thompson had been classmates at Yale, where they had already talked about forming what Fletcher called the “World Collaborative,” “an ideal office” that would combine painting, sculpture, and architecture.
John (“Chip”) Harkness had worked with Fletcher during the war (both were conscientious objectors) at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York, and later, with Jean Fletcher, for Saarinen and Swanson in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Jean Fletcher and Sally Harkness had both studied at the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the first degree-granting graduate school in the US for women to study design. Chip and Sally had married in 1941; Jean and Norman, in 1945.
Committed to forming a collaborative practice, this group of friends decided that adding an experienced senior practitioner would both help them find their way in the field and lend stature to the young firm. Other figures may have been considered (Fletcher mentioned Louis Kahn and George Howe as possible collaborators), but coincidence intervened to bring Gropius on board. After returning from wartime medical duty, Chip received a letter from Fletch proposing a collaborative office on the same day Gropius asked him to teach in the master’s class at Harvard; Chip pitched the idea to his professor, who quickly agreed to join.
In Gropius, they found not only an eminent practitioner but also a highly sympathetic collaborator, one whose attitude toward the value of teamwork closely matched their own. The goal of the eight founders was, in Sally Harkness’ words, “to remake the world.”
Collaboration at TAC meant something very different from the specialization common to other large-scale practices. Key to this approach was the idea that teams should consist of generalists able to criticize each other as equals, rather than the parceling of tasks among specialized practitioners according to principles of efficiency and division of labor. Working at other team-based firms meant suits and ties, a time clock, and a rigid chain of command; TAC meant corduroys and jeans, wild (occasionally scandalous) office parties, and a messy environment of shared investigation closer to an atelier than a corporate workplace. (Chief among these revels was the unfortunately named — but presumably tongue-in-cheek — Gropefest, a celebration of Gropius’ birthday, which is still faithfully celebrated today.) John Sheehy, a principal at TAC who had previously worked for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — the exemplar of the large corporate firm — described the difference between the two offices: “Architecture was either a way of making a living or a way of life; TAC was a way of life.”
Embedded in this environment was Gropius himself, at once one among the partners and the singular figure identified with the outsize legacy of the Bauhaus. Employees new to TAC recounted their astonishment at finding Gropius, the legend, quietly eating his lunch in a packed Harvard Square sandwich shop or dealing with an uncooperative slide projector before a client presentation. He insisted on an equal status in weekly meetings where partners shared criticism of one another’s projects.
Although historians have remained fixated on detecting the marks of his authorial signature — did he draw? which designs were really “his”? — Gropius’ true role was as a member of the group, within the dynamics of the collaborative model itself. Sally Harkness summed up Gropius’ importance as a thinker, collaborator, and critic at the heart of the firm: “Everybody wants to think of him as one of the world’s great designers, but he wasn’t. He was one of the world’s great philosophers.”
The loose structure at TAC was initially mirrored in the geography of the firm’s workspaces, distributed in a network of buildings around Harvard Square. Names such as “Siberia” (90 Mount Auburn) or “Bensville” (One Story Street) referred to the partners who occupied them or their distance from the head office, a three-story house (63 Brattle Street) where, TAC member Roland Kluver recalled, “Drafting spaces were tucked around in the various odd rooms of the old house in a wonderful, crazy, overcrowded way.”
In the early years, the young firm’s work grew in parallel with the baby boom generation, moving from suburban houses and elementary schools to secondary education and then to universities, hospitals, office buildings, and other institutional and cultural commissions. The eventual consolidation of TAC’s expanding offices in a purpose-built headquarters at 46 Brattle in 1966 spurred the development of what came to be known as the Architects’ Corner, so called for the number of fellow architects who built their own buildings on neighboring sites. Earl R. Flansburgh, a former TAC member, built his offices directly behind on Story Street, while Josep Luís Sert, Gropius’ successor at Harvard, designed his firm’s headquarters next door. The block was anchored by the distinctive vitrine of Ben Thompson’s headquarters for Design Research, the store for modern home furnishings he began in 1953 while still at TAC.
Today the Architects’ Corner forms a serene island of buildings amid the bustle of Harvard Square, gathered around its quiet inner courtyard and still announced by the luminous presence of the former Design Research (later Crate and Barrel, today Anthropologie). Few young architects realize its importance as an epicenter of building culture for more than three decades, as TAC grew to become the largest dedicated architectural firm in the country and a pioneer of the sort of large-scale, global practice that is ubiquitous today.
The firm’s early involvement in the Middle East, beginning with a commission to design the University of Baghdad after 1957, led to more than 25 years of work in the Gulf states, including projects in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. Instabilities in the region combined to precipitate the slow demise of TAC after 1983, eventually leading to the firm’s bankruptcy in 1995.
Accounts of the prewar European Modernists who emigrated to the United States after World War II frequently reinforce the idea that their encounter with the economic imperatives of large-scale, mainstream professional practice could only have been negative. Perhaps no architect has suffered more from this narrative than Walter Gropius, whose involvement with TAC has often been cited by architectural critics as a cautionary tale of what happens when the work of the singular “master” collapses into bureaucracy and formalism. Yet TAC was a success, not just economically but on the idealistic terms laid out by the firm’s founders, Gropius significantly among them. The legacy of its collective ethos lives on in the many successor firms founded by its former principals and employees, many of them collaborative and multidisciplinary in their own right: Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A) in 1962, Benjamin Thompson and Associates (BTA) in 1966, and ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge in 1969, among many others.