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A Design School Redesign

11.2.20

A file photograph of M.Des. program director and Noyes professor in architectural theory K. Michael Hays sitting with Design School dean Sarah Whiting

M.Des. program director and Noyes professor in architectural theory K. Michael Hays (left) and Graduate School of Design dean Sarah Whiting in a file photo from 2019
Photograph by John Rosenberg/Harvard Magazine


M.Des. program director and Noyes professor in architectural theory K. Michael Hays (left) and Graduate School of Design dean Sarah Whiting in a file photo from 2019
Photograph by John Rosenberg/Harvard Magazine

On October 23, the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) announced a restructuring of its master of design studies (M.Des.) program—a curriculum shift intended in part, wrote its dean, Sarah Whiting, in a letter to the community, to bolster the focus on issues like social justice, climate, and housing. 

An interdisciplinary program, the M.Des., unlike other GSD courses of study, does not lead to a professional certification in architecture or landscape architecture or planning; instead it has traditionally allowed for other kinds of exploration, critique, and careers, and its graduates often go on to work in public service, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and other fields and institutions. 

The biggest change to the degree program is organizational: instead of eight formal concentration areas, students will choose among four flexible “domains” of inquiry: ecologies, mediums, narratives, and publics. Each will involve a set of shared courses, including on research methods. “The domains are really just envelopes, or umbrellas, of general knowledge that give them a foundation,” explains K. Michael Hays, M.Des. program director and Noyes professor in architectural theory. Layered on top of that more general coursework will be individualized “trajectories”—curricular paths that students define for themselves. In her letter, Whiting offered a few examples of possible themes for trajectories: resilience and climate change; housing densities; responsive environments and technologies; historical chronicles that can incorporate new technology and narrative genres—images, podcasts, animation. And on top of these thematic trajectories, one final curricular layer: a directed, collaborative research project, which students can finish in a single, final semester. 

Whiting’s letter also spelled out the basic parameters of each of the four domains: 

  • Ecologies, “which will pursue advanced studies in topics related to climate resiliency, obsolete industries, territorial infrastructures, migration, and other critical issues within the broader contexts of our global social and natural environment”;
  • Mediums, “which will develop and deploy computational and analogue tools and technologies across fields of interactive design, human interfaces, and artistic and responsive environments”;
  • Narratives, “which will offer students the opportunity to advance a broad array of visual and verbal discursive genres, furthering historical and theoretical investigations into the social, cultural, technical, and political contexts of design”; and
  • Publics, “which will consider what constitutes the global public realm, focusing on how design facilitates urban justice, on where policy and publics intersect, and on what defines resilient communities, cities, and regions.”

(The eight, more traditionally named, concentration areas being phased out include: risk and resilience; art, design, and the public domain; critical conservation; history and philosophy of design; real estate and the built environment; energy and environments; technology; and urbanism, landscape and ecology.) 

This new structure is set to take effect next fall (though nothing will change for currently enrolled students), and although Hays notes that the planning process for this overhaul began several years ago, the details came together with unexpected speed after Whiting became dean in July 2019. To some students and alumni, the announcement of the curriculum change came as an abrupt surprise, and an unwelcome one. More than 200 students and alumni signed an open letter to Whiting, published online Tuesday, pressing for more details on the restructuring process and calling for an open discussion with the M.Des. community and a reconsideration of its decision to drop the traditional concentration categories. Some students worried that the changes would mean decreased educational resources for the program, or would abrogate their own study and coursework; the letter criticized the decision-making process as opaque.  

Noting that the entire senior faculty and administration were consulted in the planning, Hays nevertheless says he understands student and alumni concerns. “I think some folks thought that the name changes had eliminated their courses of study. But those categories haven’t gone away—they’re just folded into the new program. Students can still study ‘critical conservation,’ for example.” 

Whiting says one major motivation for the change was a need to rebalance the program, which had outgrown its original parameters during the past decade, tacking on several new areas of study in response to widening topical needs and student interests. “We wanted to draw a little more coherence around the program,” she says. “And also we were looking for a way to balance out the cohorts, because right now in the eight tracks, some of them are very, very small and others are very big, so there’s an imbalance that means some of the eight tracks aren’t large enough to support a methods class. And so this restructuring really was a way of finding an stronger way to offer a foundation for independent work. Because you need the methodological training to do that, and then you need the freedom to chart your own path.” One ambition for the new structure, she says, is to give students more autonomy and encourage greater interdisciplinary study. The move is not “a belt-tightening,” she adds. “Actually, it doesn’t save us any resources. It is just a way of reconfiguring the program to make it more potent.” 

 

Nimble Design for Real-World Demands

Both Whiting and Hays describe how the increasingly urgent real-world demands on design also helped propel the reorganization forward. Concerns like climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the social inequalities of COVID-19 pandemic, influenced the shape and timing of administrators’ decisions.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we just didn’t think about these things as belonging in our school or in our program,” Hays says. But designers are becoming more and more aware, he adds, of how “the things they make happen—whether it’s shopping malls or hospitals or urban outdoor spaces or objects that we use—how these affect real people’s lives. And they can do it in ways that are gendered or racial; certain design outcomes can be discriminatory.” He offers an example: “So, the whole concept of climate justice—the response to something like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—has political implications; there are issues of planning and issues of policy, but there are also physical properties: buildings and spaces. That’s something designers should respond to.” 

The M.Des. program, he says, is uniquely positioned to consider such issues. It cuts across all GSD departments—architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design—combining courses and curricular streams. And because the program doesn’t lead to professional accreditation, it doesn’t have to answer to institutions and certification requirements, “and so it has a little more freedom, and can be a little more nimble,” he notes. “And so, in some ways, the M.Des. can stand as a critique of the professions, or stand on the edge of the professions, or in between them.”

That notion of critique and of standing slightly apart influenced the names given to the four new domains. “For example, the ‘narratives’ domain, we could have called it ‘history’ instead—in the old program, there is a track called, simply, ‘history.’ But renaming it ‘narratives’ causes you to rethink the concept.” Certain communities—refugees, for instance, or migrants—don’t leave documents behind, or don’t have archives to store their histories. “So, how do you tell their story? How do you narrate that condition? And also, you can tell stories not just through written histories, but through exhibitions. So, a student might come into the narratives domain with a desire to become a curator.… Just by adjusting the vocabulary, I think you force people to rethink their course of study. And, again, this is part of the critique of over-professionalization. It’s a critique of conventional history to call it a narrative. Narratives are symbolic, they’re social, and they have readers and writers, but it’s just a little more open.”

A similar thought process, he says, went into the domain titled “mediums.” The more conventional name would have been “technology.” “But a medium is a form of expression,” Hays says. “And so, you study a technology as it achieves an expressive form. I think that’s a richer and more robust topic.” 

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