The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) is one of the most prestigious architecture schools in the world.

Before and after WW2 its academic program was directed by two giants of modernism from the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and the graduates from this time were amongst the most celebrated architects in the US: Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Edward Larrabee Barnes, I.M. Pei (and two key associates Henry N. Cobb and, Araldo Cossutta), John Johanson, Ulrich Franzen, Victor Lundy and the founders of TAC, The Architects collaborative, John Harknesss and Louis McMillen. Educated at Harvard between 1938 and 1952, they designed some of America's most significant post-war buildings.

When a young academic at Harvard, Klaus Herdeg, was asked in 1983 why so much of America’s architecture was ugly he responded with a devastating critique of the pedagogy of Gropius and Breuer called “The Decorated Diagram – Harvard Architecture and the Bauhaus Legacy”.

He reviewed the teaching syllabus of the Harvard years from 1937 to 1953 and argued that it was a limited approach where a diagram, predominantly in plan and rarely in section, would be elaborated or decorated to create a work of architecture.

“The Decorated Diagram” shows how diagrams were derived quite crudely from functional briefs, and how these transpositions from brief to diagram were little more than a developed bubble diagram (e.g. Johanson’s Mummers Theatre in Oaklahoma).

There was little spatial delight, which Herdeg demonstrated by comparisons to seemingly similar forms by the European greats of the time such as Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, but with far richer interior space. Herdeg argues that their training at Harvard constrained their ability to develop engaging spatial solutions and rendered their output primarily static, boring, ugly buildings.

One of the greats of Australian architecture, Harry Seidler, was also trained at Harvard at that time, 1945-46, in that so-called ‘decorated diagram’ system. Herdeg doesn’t mention him, concentrating on US architecture, but I like to think that it would also undermine his argument as Seidler's immense output was of a consistently high quality in rational form, spatial organization and high-quality construction.

It is arguable that his work far exceeds his contemporary American architects by some distance, but it is curious that Seidler is not better known world-wide than his US contemporaries, perhaps a reflection of the inability of Australian publications to project his work onto the world stage.

After Gropius and Breuer, Harvard GSD was run by Josep Lluis Sert, a Spanish architect with rational order (Morse and Stiles College), exuberant forms (Joan Miro Museum in Barcelona) and outright flamboyance (Maeght Foundation, Saint-Paul de Vence).

The last is a tour de force of emotions with buildings ‘inverting’ traditional forms of the south of France and gardens designed by Joan Miro. Sert's architecture had individuality and creativity well beyond the ‘decorated diagram’, and bought these ideas to bear in his teaching, also founding the first urban design degree in the US at Harvard.

Again, there is an Australian connection. Among Sert's favourite students was John Andrews, a student at Harvard GSD in 1957-58, in the early years of Sert’s tenure. Sert selected Andrews to design the new school for Harvard GSD, called Gund Hall, completed in 1972.

Andrews already had an illustrious career in North America winning a competition for the Miami Seaport Passenger Terminal (1970) and designing Scarborough College (1963), Weldon Library (1967) and Stephen Laecock College (1970) all in Ontario Canada. 

For Gund Hall Andrews created a section that directly spoke to his experience as a student in the GSD hothouse: a series of open studios stepping down under a single sloping roof, looking one over the other, encapsulating the entire school, and its competitive rigour, within one space. 

Offices for staff meeting rooms and other teaching spaces are underneath the sloping stepped decks. It was a clever and witty diagram for the school, executed brilliantly and it remains a prototype for many architecture schools around the world, including at Canberra University, which was designed by its inaugural head, Roger Johnson, but now sadly bastardised.

In 1973 the NCDC (Canberra’s planning and development commission) asked Andrews to return to Australia to Canberra to design a high rise building as an iconic anchor point for the new town of Belconnen, an initial  locator to work in the same way as the white concrete ‘Seidler-esque’ MLC Tower had been 10 years earlier in Woden.

But Andrew's had other ideas, suggesting that the rolling plains and the horizontality of Canberra would be better suited with a ‘ground-scraper’ of seven long fingers of office space, three stories tall, each with open plans glazed on both sides, creating six courtyards in between.

These had a variety of landscapes from desert through to lush tropical rainforest. At the far end it is anchored by one continuous building to give address and access to the wings, intended to be occupied by a variety or parts of government departments.

The building is a perfect example of Andrews' use of ideas developed from an understanding of how people experience space, and the flow of people in and out and throughout those spaces. It is a spatial rather than a decorated diagram, one that uses the sense of open, but well-lit, offices with views as the basis for the inner heart of the building, designing for the best quality for the public servants.

Its history has been one of controversy. Tom Uren, the minister of the time, read a damning report about its leaks and early difficulties with security into Hansard. And the public servants resented being in an isolated building in the ‘boondocks’ (its connection to the shopping centre was sabotaged by the same NCDC that commissioned it), preferring other buildings such as the Harry Seidler designed offices in a much more prestigious location within sight of the old and new parliament house. Nevertheless, it was the best office space going in Canberra, albeit that it was unloved in the press.

Andrews continued his work with bold spatial diagrams and unique inventions in the King George, later American Express Tower and the Darling Harbour Conference Centre both in Andrews’ home town of Sydney.

All three of these major works have been either badly mutilated or demolished whilst all of Andrews' work in North America has been revered, preserved, and enhanced. The Cameron office building was truncated, demolishing half of the original fingers, and that only retained with the agitation of the local architectural community.

The gridded sunshades on the outside of the King George Tower, that cleverly changed from horizontal to vertical as the sun angles changed, and also provided access for cleaning the exterior, were removed and an anodyne all-glass facade substituted. And the strong characteristic ground plane was made chillingly ordinary.

Nevertheless, the building still exists in part, which is more than you can say for the Conference Centre, shamefully demolished instead of being extended several years ago to create an ugly hulking version in order to chase the ‘international market’. Another example of the Liberal Party destroying ideas developed by the Labor Party, just like the NBN. 

Another example of the Liberal Party destroying ideas developed by the Labor Party, just like the NBN.

Where you admire Harry Seidler buildings, you love, or hate, the buildings of John Andrews. These musings are prompted by an exhibition that opens this week as part of the Canberra Design Festival, with a talk by Tim Ross. Drawing on Jennifer Taylor's excellent book, “John Andrews, Architecture A Performing Art”, Ross has interviewed the elderly Andrews to capture some of that larrikin spirit and intense enthusiasm for architecture, perfectly told as a performing art. Hopefully the exhibition will travel further than Canberra's small but highly informed audience.

Harvard continues to play a small but strong presence in Australian architecture. The next generation of students included Paul Berkemeier, whose elegant houses and small civic buildings and museums belie his early studies with Glenn Murcutt and Ric Le Plastrier as well as the rigour instilled at Harvard GSD. Likewise, James Weirick, a graduate of the landscape course at Harvard GSD, used that rigour to build a hugely impressive graduate course in urban design at the University of New South Wales.

The last word on this will go to Andrew Burges, a former employee with John Andrews, who has said that he only truly understood the genius of Andrews when he was a student at Harvard GSD. For him Andrew’s captured and amplified the Harvard GSD philosophy and feverish activity in physical form.

And in the same way Burges is using those experiences in his competition wins for public buildings in Sydney, showing a remarkable capacity for invention and flexibility beyond the original idea of a decorated diagram.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D.