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Harvard's first online architecture course: Does it make the grade?

I was worried there for a minute. Who’d kidnapped K. Michael Hays and what had they done with him?

I was watching a man on my computer screen who looked a lot like Hays as he gave the introductory remarks in the first online course offered by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he is the Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory. The free course, which launched in February on edX, the online portal founded in 2012 by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is called “The Architectural Imagination.”

Billed as “an introduction to the history and theory of architecture,” it’s part of a growing collection of arts and culture courses online, from both universities and tech startups, that in a few weeks’ time will include a master class by Frank Gehry. That one will cost $90.

The Hays lookalike on my monitor was wearing a loose outfit of black on black (naturally) and standing beneath the sloping glass ceiling of the Graduate School of Design’s Gund Hall. He was asking us to look at a pair of photos that had just appeared on the screen. At the top was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill. At the bottom was the Parthenon.

He was doing so lucidly, with real clarity and ease. He was comfortable in front of the camera. I scribbled in my notes, using Hays’ initials, “KMH is pretty good at this!”

This is where I began to suspect foul play. The Hays I know — the Hays I’ve seen give lectures and interview architects onstage and whose essays I’ve tried again and again, in headachy attempt after headachy attempt, to hack my way through — is not known for an especially accessible or public-minded sensibility. Instead he represents an approach to teaching architecture and architectural theory that has held sway in the American academy for at least a generation. This approach doesn’t simply treat architecture as a discipline separate from the rest of the world, with its own passwords and protocols. It guards that separation with its life.

That might sound like a paradox given that architecture is, by far, the art form most dependent on and intertwined with outside forces. A short list of those forces would include physics, the capital markets, the whims of clients and the passage of time.

To be fair to Hays and his generation of academics, there once were very good reasons for this insistence on independence — on what they often refer to as architecture’s “autonomy.” When these scholars were young — in the 1970s, especially, at the tail end of the modern movement — architecture (even academic architecture) had become far too cozy with big business and government and had lost a good deal of sharpness and rigor. The new generation pushed for a clean break, for political as well as pedagogical reasons.

Over time, that fierce independence morphed into isolationism, which hardened into a self-satisfied insularity. (It’s also important to say that while this stance might have made sense back then for a design curriculum, the idea that you can teach history or theory in a vacuum is questionable in any era.) By the time I encountered Hays around 2000, in the series of genial but truly inscrutable public talks on architecture he organized with the Whitney Museum in New York, he was part of a group that had succeeded not only in taking over the architectural academy but walling it off from the rest of the culture.

Hays’ interest in joining forces with the Whitney is another paradox: Why would a scholar so invested in the idea of an autonomous architecture seek such a prominent civic role, only to fill those appearances with an especially opaque brand of jargon? The best answer I can come up with is that Hays doesn’t see his approach as insular or hard to parse. Either that or the inscrutability itself remains a badge of honor or hard-to-earn membership card for this group (as for so many others in the academy), something to take pride in and even show off. Nobody will be surprised to hear that my own experiences studying architectural history at Yale and Columbia featured more than a little posturing of this second kind.

In the years since that Whitney series, as the Hays generation has become fully entrenched, it’s become only more obvious that what architectural education needs is not autonomy but something more like its opposite. Many younger professors — and increasingly their students — have pushed for a renewed engagement with all those topics that the longstanding focus on self-reliance had succeeded in crowding out of the conversation at most architecture schools: urbanism, the politics of housing, race, gender, history, patronage and authorship (which is to say, who gets credit for architecture and why).

This is not to suggest that it’s the profession’s job to confront or (God forbid) solve all the issues on that list — only that to keep up an elaborate charade that the field is somehow independent of them is to warp architects’ view of their place in the culture from the start.

Over the last two weeks, this column has featured interviews with the incoming and outgoing leaders of the architecture departments at USC and UCLA. In both cases, I made a point of asking the subjects — first Hitoshi Abe and Qingyun Ma, then Milton Curry — how the architectural education at those universities had become so thoroughly detached from any meaningful discussion of Los Angeles and its shifting civic identity. The story of that detachment begins with figures like Hays.

In any case, it turns out that I worried about Hays and his whereabouts for nothing. Near the end of the first week of material — edX calls each week a “module” — the professor took a few minutes to explain an influential study by German historian Rudolf Wittkower of 16th century villas by Andrea Palladio, the Italian architect.

“We might say,” he concluded, “that the imagination organizes the sensuous manifold according to organizing principles that can be received by the understanding.” The old K. Michael Hays was back!

By the second module, he’d been joined by his colleague Erika Naginski, who extended the discussion of Wittkower in less impenetrable but more telling terms. Wittkower’s continuing importance, she explained, is linked to his belief in an architecture that could construct “its own world within a world,” that could emerge as “self-reflective” and — drum roll, please — “an autonomous project.”

And what one solitary piece of writing were we asked to read for those first two weeks? An essay by Hays, of course: “Architecture’s Appearance and the Practices of Imagination,” from a journal known for publishing wooden prose and called — you can’t make this stuff up — Log.

Hays’ piece, though mercifully short, was predictably hostile to the idea that any neophyte might effectively grasp what he was trying to say. And this is a course, remember, designed largely if not directly for neophytes; it marks the school’s widely promoted first attempt to engage a broad digital public.

It was reassuring, in a way. The old order was restored. Hays had fashioned another piece of writing into a hood to slip over the heads of his unsuspecting readers. I felt strangely comforted. I felt perversely at home.

Building Type is Christopher Hawthorne’s weekly column on architecture and cities. Look for future installments every Thursday at latimes.com/arts.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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