Open Letters: Harvard GSD

Paul Mosley

Drawing Matter has been enjoying Open Letters, published bi-weekly by Harvard University Graduate School Of Design, from the start. In part, this is because our own publishing initiative began at much at the same time – now ten years ago – and proceeds at the same pace, and with a little of the same ethos, a kind of carefully-orchestrated randomness. We asked Paul Mosley and his editors for permission to reprint his own recent Open Letter, and as a preamble – for anyone unfamiliar with the series – his reflections on Open Letters itself and his experience of writing for it.

– Niall Hobhouse

Since 2013, Open Letters has been a public forum for students, architects, editors, and others to engage with letter writing as a medium for testing ideas, recounting memories, and broadcasting criticism. But it has also consistently warped the genre into unexpected forms such as automated Zoom transcripts. Despite (or perhaps because of) its singular format, Open Letters is open-ended in a productively experimental way that few other publications can boast. The following is my contribution, addressed to former University of Arkansas professor David Buege. It sticks to the medium, and is written to reconcile with a few learning experiences I had with him.

Louis Kahn (1901–1974), sketch for a mural, c.1951–1953. Ink on paper, 298 × 400 mm. DMC 1382.

David Buege
Town Line Road
Washington Island, WI 54246

2 December 2022

Dear David,

You used to say that architecture may have died in New York’s Penn Station in 1974 and that Louis I. Kahn may have been the last architect. It’s an unexpected statement that led to several questions: was I in school to learn a dead subject? wouldn’t architecture end as a result of some major historical turn? or wouldn’t some development in science or society render it obsolete, as with alchemy? As concise as you were as a teacher, there are still so many other questions that remain: What makes Kay Fisker’s Hornbækhus ‘the greatest building in the world’? Is the texture of oatmeal really more interesting than the texture of bush-hammered concrete? And why is that big blank wall at the Fine Arts Building ‘the best wall on campus’? We assumed you had answers, but more importantly, those deliberately provocative statements encouraged us to form our own.

To me, what made that vertical blank wall on the theatre stage house ‘the best wall on campus’ is that it was simply that – a wall – unadorned, proportionate, and absolute. During the 2020 BLM protests, when I learned that it’s likely Beverly Loraine Greene helped design it in the office of Edward Durrell Stone, and that she is believed to be the first Black woman to become licensed as an architect in the United States, its empty masonry surface became charged with her repressed contribution. I consider my encounter with this blank wall one of the best moments of my education, and this new understanding of Greene’s involvement gave voice to its mute surface.

In an impromptu studio conversation in spring 2010, a student asked (with a hint of accusation) whether you were an architect. ‘I’m a teacher of architecture’, you bluntly replied. And this was true in the most direct way. Your teaching was accessible precisely because it seemed to lack an agenda, other than searching for and communicating architecture’s essential qualities. Kahn also sought the essential qualities of architecture by rejecting modernism and interpreting his own Beaux Arts training as an approach to architecture not as a tradition but as ‘an introduction to the spirit of architecture’, as Paul Goldberger wrote in his New York Times obituary. With Kahn, for the first time since classical antiquity, architecture cast its light on pure volume, illuminating a spatial order that surpassed antiquity’s attempt to fuse the human body and geometrical form, and instead elevated the human being within the metaphysical voids of his architecture. The ‘end’ of architecture with Kahn in 1974 is nothing less than the end of Renaissance humanism’s preoccupation with the architecture of antiquity.

Other professors stressed big ideas, but you resisted that, preferring that we take a bad idea and make it good through rigorous design resolution rather than coasting on a provocative initial concept. You gave weight to architecture as a measurable, material construct and as an intellectual discipline (rather than as purely instrumental). Your teaching drew from the Latin root of the word education, meaning ‘to lead out’, and guided me to view architecture as a way of understanding, and of testing my understanding, of the world. Now it seems planetary geographic time has overcome urban morphology, localised regions have overcome international cities, and territorial design has overcome urban design. What worldview does architecture warrant today? If for Kahn the answer was in timelessness and monumentality, then perhaps today it is in transiency and ecological memory.

The last time you and I met was by accident, early Monday morning while in line for coffee at Little Bread Company on 20 March 2019. It was my first day back in Arkansas from Chicago, and your last day before moving back to Wisconsin, and we haven’t spoken since. Shortly after that, I ran into Greg at Wal-Mart where he informed me that you moved to a little island at the end of a peninsula on Lake Michigan. ‘Washington Island?’ I asked in amazement, because that’s where Sara and I spent our honeymoon several months before (Did you know that?). I was surprised not only because I had recently traveled there but also because it’s so remote; it’s only accessible by ferry, and by foot during low tide at the strait of Porte des Morts. I think of it as Door County’s ‘Death’s Door’ Bering Strait – that narrow impasse from Lake Michigan’s vast waters to Green Bay. If Kahn’s architecture was the final impasse to humanism’s attempt to fuse the human body with architectural form, then perhaps there is a future in ahuman entanglements, in decentering humans in relation to the environment and the other life forms that populate it, and fusing architectural form not with the human body but with territory as an apparatus of environmental restoration.