Get to Know The Harvard Five

by 1792 Style

Connecticut’s modernist marvels are as untraditional as they come

You’ve probably seen the work of the Harvard Five without even knowing it. Boxy buildings void of ornamentation with big glass windows are their signature, and have been featured in such films as Ang Lee’s 1997 drama The Ice Storm, countless magazine editorials, and a library’s worth of design books. It would be impossible to fully illustrate the influence, history, and work of the Harvard Five in a post such as this, but we felt an abridged version of their story would be the perfect thing for any guy in need of a few fresh talking points at cocktail hour. 

Bauhaus Beginnings 

At the core of the group is Marcel Breur, who was an instructor at The Harvard Graduate School of Design during the 1940s; Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores, and John Johansen were four of his students. Together, they represent the first generation of architects in the United States to be schooled in the Bauhaus style—the European design movement in which only line, shape, and color mattered. This in mind, one can imagine how the work of the Harvard Five contrasted with the Federalist, Georgian, Victorian, and Tudor style buildings dominating the American residential and commercial landscape; they were considered radical thinkers and not everyone embraced what they were doing. 

American Optimism 

“We’ve won the war!” is what many Americans were feeling after WWII, and it’s this sense of optimism that spurred a new approach to design the Harvard Five strived for. The postwar economic boom provided the money and materials needed by forward-looking architects like Breur, Johnson, Noyes, Johansen, and Gores to bring their visions to life. They had plenty of ideas, but after the war was finally done and the troops were back on the home front, they needed a place to bring them to fruition … space to actually build. And though it’s painfully true that not everyone understood what they were trying to do, they had enough support (thank you Harvard) to keep going. 

Connecticut Convenience

Cue Connecticut. Undeveloped land in bucolic New Canaan, conveniently connected to New York City via train, proved the ideal place for the five architects to break ground and construct what they’d dreamed up at their drafting tables. They began with their own residences, and once people saw how harmonious their designs worked with the landscape — low lying roofs, locally sourced materials like fieldstone, oversize windows that let the outdoors in — they began working on commissions for their neighbors. Soon, the Connecticut hills once dominated by sleepy gentleman’s farms were dotted with otherworldly structures that emphasized comfort, efficiency, and functionality. 

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Good Design Endures

To this day, Phillip Johnson’s “Glass House” is an architectural pilgrimage most everyone with an interest in modern design hopes to make. To visit the house is to get a glimpse into the visions of the Harvard Five. Man and nature in harmony. Form that follows function. Materials meant to last. And though Johnson’s home is just one example of the group’s collective body of work, its quiet grace speaks to the through-line that connects everything they built.

Editor’s Note: Top photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash, an example of midcentury modern architecture.

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