TAC- The Architects Collaborative
Updated: May 22, 2020
Their mission was simple : ”to remake the world”. (1)
While it is often assumed that Gropius was the founding partner of TAC, in fact it was seven friends: Chip Harkness, Sara Harkness, Jean Fletcher, Norman Fletcher, Louis McMillen, Bob Mcmillan and Ben Thompson, who were newly graduated from architecture school and decided to form their own practice. They needed an older more established architect in the mix and when Gropius met Chip Harkness at Harvard, where they were both faculty members they realized his collaborative approach meshed perfectly with theirs. Like many post-war architects, they were full of optimism and hope.
TAC started out doing post-war modernist housing, notably Six Moon Hill in Lexington, Mass. This single unit housing cluster on a long cul de sac was designed as a semi-utopian housing community for the founding members of TAC who bought the property from an atuo dealer. It is now on the national register of historic places. TAC moved on to student housing at Harvard, eventually becoming involved with the University of Baghdad. The firm became involved in many projects throughout Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states for more than 25 years. When the region erupted in conflict in the nineteen eighties, TAC struggled to find its financial footing.TAC closed its doors in1995, fifty years after it was founded.
“Get a bunch of Harvard architects in a room and you’re going to have competition” (2)
While TAC was built around the principals of team work, squabbles were inevitable. Ben Thompson was said to be particularly polarizing, and eventually left to form Ben Thompson Associates. TAC alum Perry Neubauer ( who is also responsible for the above quote) described Ben Thompson's studio as the "Architects Competitive" rather than the collaborative approach it was known for. Norman Fletcher or "Fletch" as he was known, appeared to be uniformly beloved, as was Gropius, who brought the bauhaus party culture to TAC to calm tensions. Many still have fond memories of him leaning over their desks with his cigar while reviewing their work in his thick German accent. At the beginning, the offices of TAC were scattered about Harvard Square, with the main office being located above a liquor store called Harvard Provisions on Mt. Auburn street. According to many, it was a lively and fun place to work and socialize with everyone gathering at local watering hole Casablanca and the festivities continuing on in people’s homes. Memories of historic projects are peppered with stories of drinking, smoking and singing in cramped apartments. One particular incident included then Prinicpal Perry Neubauer belting out a late-nite version of the diddy "Too Pooped to Pop" in someone's home. Women at TAC During the fifties and even into the sixties it was unusual for an architecture office to have female architects, let alone two female Principals. Sarah Harkness went on to have an illustrious career at TAC and was made a Fellow of the American Institue of Architects in 1979. Sadly Jean Fletcher's career was cut short by her death from breast cancer in 1965.
In addition to their office responsibilities both women were mothers; Sarah Harkness to seven children and Jean Fletcher to six! The two women shared a babysitter and worked half days to enable them to spend time with their children without sacrificing their careers. Fletcher worked in the morning and Harkness in the afternoon. What a sensible arrangement. One can't help but wonder however, if this benefit was offered to other women at TAC. If it was, this aspect of TAC culture doesn't seem to have permeated the office culture of today's architecture world in the same way that their collaborative teams and parties have. Another long term employee, Lolly Mitchell remembers that when times were tough "the women were always the first to go".(3) Brenda Stanfield, another alum, stated in her TAC Reminiscences that "In spite of working for a firm that boasted two female architects as two of the founding partners, being a female in this profession was seldom an asset." She goes on to mention many of her male colleagues who were supportive, that she loved working with such as "Fletch" and Perry Neubauer. The TAC diaspora Most of the original Principals went on to form their own practices such as the Cambridge Seven, Ben Thompson Associates and Architectural Resources, where they brought the TAC culture with them. They influenced future generations of architects and the way architecture is practiced. While it is now commonplace for architecture offices, to be based on teamwork and collaboration, this was un-heard of in 1945. It was still the era of the NAME architect such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Philip Johnson. Perhaps TAC’s biggest legacy is how they influenced the the culture of today's architecture office. The TAC alumni still gather every year in May to celebrate Gropiu's birthday. Read all about the Grope Fest and its accompanying cocktail here
Notes and Sources: 1. The Cambridge School, Michael Kubo Architecture Boston 2013 2. Interview with Perry Neubauer, TAC Alum 3. interview with Lolly Mitchell, TAC Alum TAC Reminiscences
A special thank you to Lolly Mitchell and Perry Neubauer for sharing their TAC memories with me.
Perry K Neubauer
Perry's riff on the classic Rietveld chair