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Dispatches from the GSD: 075 Years of Design

Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cambridge, Massachusetts
August 22–December 22, 2011

Who gives an exhibition the subtitle 075 Years of Design? Maybe someone who wants to move the Graduate School of Design’s comparatively short history into the weightier realm of three digits, like MIT—now celebrating its 150th anniversary—or the rest of Harvard, which turns 375 this year.

Understandably, the show is a compendium of some of the many highlights from the school’s past. And its layout, juxtaposing moments from recent and distant memory, reinforces the sense of institutional presence. We are reminded of the many important designers and critics who have held sway at the GSD over the past three-quarters of a century: Gropius, Sert, McHarg, Geddes, Koolhaas, Rossi, Cobb, Eisenman, Moneo, and many more. This is not a school with a single point of view. Rather, as the show’s historical exhibits attest, it has been a smorgasbord of choice.

Today, the GSD is attempting to become a school with a much more socially engaged direction under Dean Mohsen Mostafavi. And it shows. Although the historical exhibits (in horizontal glass cases) reveal a wide range of interests and periods, the companion thematic observations from current faculty speak to a much more consistent and focused GSD. To those of us who recall the Wild West formalism of the past generation (since, say, 1980), this anniversary exhibition will appear to be about a different school altogether.

In place of those decades of formal experimentation, we see a deeper social commitment now on the ascendant, one that returns to the ethos prevalent in the school’s early years. It’s an interesting lens through which to understand the GSD, and one that reflects the current dean’s efforts at recalibration.

Though less eye-popping than the one-person shows that have dominated the gallery’s programming in recent years, this exhibition offers much to see, from the many student publications created over the years to the broad range of representation techniques. It covers ideas, materials, surfaces, methods, form, and places all over the world. One comes away, though, with a sense that the GSD plans to engage more and speculate less.