Creating Community: Harvard Law School and the Bauhaus

2019 marks the centennial of the Bauhaus, and Harvard is celebrating! The Bauhaus, considered the twentieth century’s most influential school of art and design, has deep connections to Harvard, including the Harvard Law School (HLS). Did you know that Harvard’s first example of modern architecture is on the HLS campus and was designed by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus? Or that Gropius commissioned Bauhaus pioneers to create site-specific artwork for the buildings? Explore HLS’s connection to the Bauhaus and its role in shaping campus life in these excerpts from the full exhibit, on view daily 9-5 in Langdell Hall's Caspersen Room through August 16, 2019. 

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This exhibit was curated by KB Beck and Lesley Schoenfeld. It was on view February 4, 2019 - August 16, 2019.

HLS Gets Modern

Walter Gropius and Erwin Griswold

In 1948, Harvard Law School (HLS) Dean Erwin Griswold sought to reduce the school’s longstanding housing shortage, which had become especially acute when students returned to campus after serving in WWII. During this same time period, Walter Gropius, Chair of Harvard’s Architectural Department in the Graduate School of Design, sought to expand the Bauhaus style in America. Their collaboration at HLS was a match made in heaven.  


Dean Griswold raised the then-unheard-of sum of over $1.5 million from alumni to contribute toward the cost of a Graduate Center. The Center consisted of eight buildings: Harkness Commons, comprising a dining hall and lounge complex intended to serve HLS and other Harvard graduate students; and seven dormitories. Five of the dorms - Ames, Dane, Holmes, Shaw, and Story - housed HLS students, while the Child and Richards dorms housed students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). The agreed-upon goal was to provide simple, functional housing, combining maximum comfort and enjoyment at minimum cost.


Harvard Graduate Center construction


Gropius and his colleagues in The Architects Collaborative (TAC) delivered on time and under budget. Opened for occupancy on September 11, 1950, the new dormitories housed 600 students: 400 from HLS and 200 from Harvard’s GSAS. In the intervening decades, thousands of students have lived and worked in the Bauhaus-inspired spaces created by Walter Gropius and TAC, and millions of meals have been served in “The Hark.” Though it may not always have felt like it to those who lived, worked, dined, and socialized there, one might say that generations of HLS students have lived in a work of art.


Image Credits: Walter Gropius showing Dean Erwin Griswold a model of the proposed Harvard Graduate Center, by Walter R. Fleischer, Harvard University News Office, 1948, Harvard Law School Buildings prints and photographs collection: Box 6A, Folder 11, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections; Construction of Harvard Graduate Center Dormitories, by James K. Ufford, 1949 or 1950, HOLLIS 8001543997, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections.

An Education in Modern Art

The Harvard Law School (HLS) has been collecting art since at least the mid-nineteenth century. While the school had amassed a large collection of paintings, prints, and sculpture by the time the Graduate Center was built, this was the first HLS building to incorporate original, site-specific art in its construction. Incorporating art in the design was an important part of Walter Gropius’s vision to address what he and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative considered “a lack of visual education” for students of the day. To remedy this situation, he commissioned work by former Bauhaus colleagues Josef Albers and Herbert Bayer; along with György Kepes (then faculty at MIT); Spanish painter Joan Miró; and American sculptor Richard Lippold.


Harkness Commons second floor main dining areaFunding for the art was made possible by an anonymous gift from a Law School graduate. Of all the pieces commissioned, five are preserved onsite, two have been transferred to the Harvard Art Museums, and one was removed at the behest of the artist.


The Harvard Crimson devoted its entire October 6, 1950 issue to the Graduate Center. Featured in the issue was a piece by Rudolph Kass with this comment about the art: “‘Difficult’ but interesting works of art will be scattered before and inside the Harkness Commons building, for Gropius and company feel that a place where young people are living should give them a ‘kick’.” Like the design of the buildings, student and community response to the art has ranged from critical to complimentary. No matter what the response, the art is an important part of the story told by this first example of modern architecture at Harvard.



Students in Harkness Commons Grill with Arp relief in background

Artworks commissioned by Gropius


  • Verdure, 1950

    Herbert Bayer (1900-1985)

    Oil on canvas, 189.9 x 596.9 x 5.1 cm

    Harvard Art Museums Object Number 1950.169

  • Untitled (mural painting), 1950-1951

    Joan Miró (1893-1983)

    Oil on canvas, 192.1 × 596.9 × 6.7 cm

    MOMA Object Number 592.1963

  • Untitled (tile mural), 1960

    Joan Miró (1893-1983) in collaboration with

    Joseph Llorens Artigas (1892-1980) assisted by Joan Gardy Artigas (1938- )

    Glazed ceramic tile, 183 x 597 cm

  • Constellations II, 1950/1958

    Hans Arp (1886-1966)

    Thirteen panels of American redwood

    Harvard Art Museums Object Number 2017.88

  • Untitled (tile mural and screen), 1950

    Herbert Bayer (1900-1985)

    Ceramic tile, aluminum screen, and inset acrylic squares

  • Relief Map, 1950

    György Kepes (1906-2001)

  • World Tree, 1950

    Richard Lippold (1915-2002)

    Stainless steel, approximately 20 feet

  • America, 1950

    Josef Albers (1888-1976)

    Brick relief, 7.5 x 8 feet

Image Credits: Harkness Commons Dining Room, by Myron Beldock, 1955-1958, HOLLIS 8001540229, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections; Members of Harvard Black Law Students Association in Harkness Commons Grill Room, by Robert Bouchal, 1974 or 1975, HOLLIS 8001541400, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections.

A Bauhaus-Built Community

Those who have been able to visit here know from firsthand observation how well the Center has finally filled a long-felt need for integrated living and dining facilities at the School.                                                                                                                                               -Vice-Dean Livingston Hall, 1951

From its inception, the Graduate Center was envisioned as a community hub for Harvard’s graduate students. The eight-building complex offered housing for 600 Harvard Law School (HLS) and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students, and a campus center with flexible group spaces for eating, working, and relaxing. This was new: prior to the building’s opening in 1950, most graduate students lived off-campus in local rooming houses, and HLS’s buildings lacked spaces for students to gather, study, and play.


Reception on Jarvis field, 1961?

In fall 1950, 876 students applied for 500 vacancies in the new dorms, with half the law school rooms reserved for entering 1Ls and the remainder prioritized for 3Ls who had never lived in the dorms. As of spring 1951, the Law School reported an occupancy rate of 99.8% in the dorms, with vacancies rapidly filled from a wait-list. By this time, 7,000 HLS and GSAS students had used the Graduate Center’s common rooms.


Not all HLS students benefited from this newly created community right away. Interviewed for a 1988 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin, Priscilla Holmes, LL.B. 1955, alluded to the isolation experienced by women students. (Holmes was one of 12 women in a class of 525, and the first woman on the Harvard Law Review). Despite having no access to dormitories, eating clubs, or common meeting places “except the bathroom,” Holmes nevertheless found her experience at HLS “exhilarating.” When women gained access to the dorms, it made a difference. In a 1988 Bulletin story, Marge Gibson (Haskell), LL.B. 1964, observed that “women were finally given dorm rooms in my time, and once we could live together we had some continuity. The network that began then remains today.”

                                                  Harvard Law School Orientation Party on Jarvis Field, 2016


Image Credits: Program of Instruction for Lawyers Reception on Jarvis Field, ©Fay Foto Service, 1961?, Photographs of Harvard Law School Programs: Program of Instruction for Lawyers, 1953-1996: Box 1, Folder 5, Accession no. 2014.66.86, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections; Harvard Law School Students at an Orientation Party, photo: Martha Stewart, August 2016, Harvard Law School Communications.



The Bauhaus and HLS: Student Voices


Student Voices: The Dorms

The part of the Graduate Center that houses law students consists of five interconnected residence halls (Holmes, Ames, Dane, Story, and Shaw Halls), which include common lounges, as well as shared kitchens and bathrooms. When the dorms first opened, a combination of single and double rooms housed 386 students. Today, the 364 rooms are rented as singles. The majority of the floors are co-educational with one single sex or gender inclusive bathroom per floor. Over the years, students have had no shortage of comments about the dorms.


Elliot Rothenberg HLS yearbook headshot 1964

Elliot C. Rothenberg, J.D. 1964 (December 2018)

[Rothenberg lived in the Gropius dorms all three years at HLS]

“The Gropius dorms (all male then) consisted mostly of small but utilitarian single rooms, with a few double rooms. I lived in one of the double rooms in my second year . . . Gropius intentionally made the dorm rooms unsoundproof. Nothing was private. You could hear normal conversations in the rooms to either side of you. I love to listen to classical music all my waking hours, but that was impossible even at low levels because it disturbed my neighbors.”  



Student Voices: Building Design and Community

Regardless of one’s feelings about Bauhaus design, it can't be disputed that Harkness Commons created a space for students to meet and socialize that did not previously exist on the Law School campus. And while there has been a name change - to the Caspersen Student Center - along with some renovations over the years, the building’s footprint and Gropius’s vision remain in place.



Elizabeth Papp Kamali, HLS yearbook headshot 2007Elizabeth Papp Kamali, J.D. 2007 (January 2019)       

“Although the Hark felt very institutional and stark compared with some of my other favorite HLS haunts, it was also an important space for bonding with classmates at a time when we did not yet have the luxurious student spaces of the new Wasserstein complex.. . . “I enjoyed many a lunchtime conversation in the large dining room space . . . The south dining room was also, incidentally, the locale chosen by a small group of dear classmates to throw me an impromptu baby shower when I was expecting my second child during our 3L year.”




Student Voices: Graduate Center Art

Following the opening of the Graduate Center and for some time after, students voiced strong opinions about the art. Students have less to say about the art these days, as it appears to have faded into the background of the space. This may not be surprising since there are fewer pieces on display after the 2004 Harkness Commons renovations. We hope this exhibit helps students get reacquainted with the art around them.


1955 yearbook photo of Arthur Greenbaum


Miró’s painting elicited strong sentiments over the years, including being described as "appropriate for an evil child's nursery" and “symbolic of a coed trunk murder.” In 2012, Arthur Greenbaum, LL.B. 1955, explained that during his time at HLS “he had little appreciation for the mural’s colorful abstraction” and that “we thought it looked obscene.”





Image Credits: Elliot C. Rothenberg, 1964 Harvard Law School Yearbook; Elizabeth Papp Kamali, 2007 Harvard Law School Yearbook, p.86.; Arthur Greenbaum, 1955 Harvard Law School Yearbook, p.49.