Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Design, inspired by ‘the trays’

5 min read

The Graduate School of Design’s tiered, open spaces fire the imagination

Before Gund Hall was built in 1972, the Harvard Graduate School of Design was scattered across five separate buildings. Architect John Andrews M.Arch. ’58 brought the school together under one roof. At the heart of the new construction was “the trays,” an enormous multi-tiered studio space.

“The studios on all floors are open to each other, each studio tray overlapping the one beneath it and tucked under the one above,” reads a 1969 article in Architectural Forum. “The building gathers all studios into one open, integrated environment. Gone are the separate identities cherished by competing department ‘empires.’”

Past architectural writings refer to the floors as balconies, terraces, tiers, lofts, and steps. Andrews, in the architectural drawings, denoted each level as “studio,” but the term “the trays” won out. “The idea has been to eliminate walls, physically and ideologically, among departments; this is a school for the study of the total environment,” wrote critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a 1972 article in The New York Times.

Finding inspiration in the light-filled space, students of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, urban planning, and design studies spend endless hours producing, discovering, and innovating. In 1970, Andrews called his creation “a roof covering a series of tiered open spaces — open for open-ended intellectual growth.”

“I’m interested in ideas and places that are unconventional. And the trays are a very unique space. When I see a student who is not pushing the limits, I just need to ask them to look up, see where they are, and be inspired,” says associate professor of architecture Mariana Ibanez.
“The trays have their own internal ecology, like an aquarium. Everything feels connected, a self-organizing machine — a single vector takes you from a group pinup past an intense one-on-one discussion to a spontaneous encounter with unexpected visitor to lunch at the Chauhaus. The trays calibrate all of life at the GSD,” says Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Michael Hays, who first encountered the trays in 1978. GSD students Pu Zhang ’17 (left) and Mengdan Liu ’16 intently examine their work.
“Studios are on five receding terraces, over which a single canted steel-truss roof is suspended … The large, undifferentiated spaces accommodate a variety of uses and are adaptable to change. It is expected that ease of communication between all members of the School will be facilitated by the open circulation system,” reads the November 1969 press release announcing the groundbreaking ceremony for Gund Hall.
“There is an incomparable energy to the trays. You can see everybody working away. You can see people during their creative process,” says Ibanez. Students Fabiola Guzman ’17 (left) and Kimberly Orrego ’17 work together on a project.
“Each desk is a world,” says Mariana Ibanez.
“The students, they are extraordinary,” says program coordinator Edna Van Saun. “They conceive an idea in just a few weeks, like composing a piece of music.” Louise Roland ’17 (from left), Dana Kash ’17, and Jenna Chaplin ’17 collaborate on landscape architecture coursework.
The trays can be “intensely social,” says Althea Northcross ’16. “It’s home away from home.” Lanisha Blount ’17 (left) and Keith Scott ’17 share a moment of levity between work sessions.
“Studio work ranges from practical, real-life projects such as shelters for climatic disaster events, a tower, or housing, to fantastical and experimental projects,” Mariana Ibanez says.
Azzurra Cox ’16 references Michel Foucault’s modern panopticon in describing the trays, where everyone can see everything—“see and be seen.”
The trays have inspired many terminologies, or trayisms, to describe the space and the people. The Pit and Chauhaus are the critique and café areas on the first floor. Though busy preparing for a final critique, Remus Macovei (right) and a fellow student find time to socialize.
Thomas Batchelder, coordinator of undergraduate studies for the Department of Art and Architecture and former student of landscape architecture at the GSD, describes the trays as a “flowing angle of rabbit warrens stacked up a mountainside like a favela.”
“The essence of the building — integration of disciplines, contact, equality, open-endedness, inquiry, flexibility — is represented by the arrangement of the studio space,” reads a GSD newsletter from 1968. Jenny Ni Zhan ’17 (from left), Andrew Madl ’17, and Ambrose Luk ’16 utilize the space as it was intended.
“I always enjoy looking at the transformation in the trays throughout the semester. At the beginning it is a very organized, clean space that is anonymous. And as the semester progresses, things begin to accumulate. Sometimes people build very large objects that don’t quite fit in the space, or many small models,” says Ibanez. “At the beginning, you see the people. At the end, you see the things that people make. I love having the chance to experience that progression.”
“I for the most part remember the names of all the students I taught here, but I always remember who they were sitting with. It becomes very important,” says Mariana Ibanez. “I’ve had students that loved each other. I’ve had students that fought like brothers and sisters. I’ve had students that ended up married.” Andres Camacho ’18 (from left), Steven Meyer ’18, and Joanne K. Cheung ’18 work intently within their cluster.
Creativity is on display throughout the trays. A student needs only to glance up to find inspiration.
Energy is telegraphed across the space. During final reviews, observers can smell the stress in the atmosphere. David Schoen ’18 looks for his work at one of the printer stations.
“The type of materials used for architectural production range from sketches, or very abstract representations of a world of ideas, to precise, more sophisticated objects for presentations, reviews, and publications,” says Mariana Ibanez.
“Even spaces that are quite fantastic, if you are able to go there often, can sometimes lose their aura,” says Ibanez. “The trays don’t. It doesn’t matter how many years or how much time I spend in the trays. Every time I’m up there, I feel it is an incredible space. It doesn’t lose its magic.”