Theses Doctoral

Design and the Politics of Knowledge in America, 1937-1967: Walter Gropius, Gyorgy Kepes

Vallye, Anna

Using the American careers of Walter Gropius and Gyorgy Kepes as case studies, this dissertation addresses the intersection of art and architecture with the reciprocal politics of knowledge production and state formation in the mid-twentieth century United States. Inasmuch as the careers of Gropius and Kepes--wartime émigrés from Germany and Hungary, respectively--retrace the narrative of importation and assimilation linking interwar European modernism and its post-World War Two American legacies, this project also implicates that larger narrative and its constructions. Avant-garde practices in the Weimar Republic orbit advanced a model of design as a practice of knowledge, ideation or "expertise," which found fertile ground in the new political conditions of postwar America.

The intersection of design practices with practices of knowledge production reconfigured design from material craftsmanship or artistic invention to a fluid set of competences and techniques oriented towards establishing new cultural, political, and economic agency for the designer. The constitution of this agency and its limits is the central historical and conceptual problem of this dissertation. From their strategic positions on architectural faculties at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and in their multiple roles as administrators, educators, writers, and designers, Gropius and Kepes both responded to and shaped several emergent discourses on knowledge that traversed the academy, the federal government, the design professions, and the wider political and intellectual life of the nation: the discourse of economic "stimulus" that posited the intersection of knowledge and legislative practices and their combined agency in the social body; the discourse of planning that charted the intervention of the "managed economy" regime across the nation's urban fabric; the discourse of the creative mind that posited knowledge as a key economic and political resource; and finally, the discourse of instrumentality that defined the political agency of knowledge-production within the postwar research university.

Among the events leading Gropius and Kepes to confront those discourses, as chronicled in this dissertation, were the wartime administrative reorganization of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the establishment of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, and postwar curricular reform at MIT at large. In each of those instances, art and architecture emulated the disciplinary practices of knowledge production: research, education, methodology, collaboration. But more importantly, the disciplines of design adopted and elaborated in their own terms the ends of those organized knowledge practices in the promotion of unpredictability and innovation, necessitating in turn the curbing of controls and the circumscription of agency. The pursuit of this mode of practice, characterized by internal delimitation, situated design within an emergent political regime dedicated to the maintenance of socio-economic freedoms, articulated in the United States within a newly consolidated and organized federal government institution, and accompanied by new legislative and ideological articulations of national identity.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Bergdoll, Barry George
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 18, 2011