The Architectural Imagination

Learn fundamental principles of architecture — as an academic subject or a professional career — from a study of history’s important buildings.

Architecture engages a culture’s deepest social values and expresses them in material, aesthetic form. In this course, you will learn how to “read” architecture as a cultural expression as well as a technical achievement. Vivid analyses of exemplary buildings from a wide range of historical contexts, coupled with hands-on exercises in drawing and modeling, bring you close to the work of an actual architect or historian

What to Expect

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Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated and globally recognized cultural practices, both as an academic subject and a professional career. Its production involves all of the technical, aesthetic, political, and economic issues at play within a given society. Over the course of ten modules, we’ll examine some of history’s most important examples that show how architecture engages, mediates, and expresses a culture’s complex aspirations.

The first part of the course introduces the idea of the architectural imagination as a faculty that mediates sensuous experience and conceptual understanding. Two examples of the architectural imagination—perspective drawing and architectural typology—are explored through video presentations and hands-on exercises. You will be introduced to some of the challenges involved in writing architectural history, revealing that architecture does not always have a straightforward relationship to its own history.

In the second set of modules, we address technology as a component of architecture’s realization and understanding. Architecture is embedded in contexts where technologies and materials of construction—glass and steel, reinforced concrete—are crucial agents of change. But a society’s technology does not determine its architectural forms. You will discover ways that innovative technology can enable and promote new aesthetic experiences, or disrupt age-old traditions. You will witness architecture’s ways of converting brute technical means into meaningful perceptions and textures of daily life. The interactions of architecture and modern technologies changed not only what could be built, but also what kinds of constructions could even be thought of as architecture.

The final set of modules confronts architecture’s complex relationship to its social and historical contexts and its audiences, achievements, and aspirations. As a professional practice deeply embedded in society, architecture has social obligations and the aesthetic power to negotiate social change; to carry collective memories; even to express society’s utopian ideals. You will learn about what we call architecture’s power of representation, and see how architecture has a particular capacity to produce collective meaning and memories.

  • Read, analyze, and understand different forms of architectural representation.
  • Understand social and historical contexts behind major works of architecture.
  • Apply basic principles to produce your own architectural drawings and models.
  • Explore pertinent content for academic study or a professional career as an architect.

This edX program is available for free to all, but you must be a registered member of the American Institute of Architects to add AIA Learning Units.

Step 1

Enroll in the Verified Track for this Course ($249)

Sign up for the online course on the edX site.

Step 2

Verify your identity & Complete the Course

Learn more about the Verified Certificate track on the edX site.

Step 3

Submit your edX Verified Certificate to add 10 AIA Learning Units ($100)

Add AIA Learning Units for the course.


Headshot of K. Michael Hays

K. Michael Hays

Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory; Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Harvard University

Headshot of Erika Naginski

Erika Naginski

Professor of Architectural History; Director of Graduate Studies, Harvard University

Headshot of Antoine Picon

Antoine Picon

G. Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology; Technology Director of Research, Harvard University

Headshot of Lisa Haber Thomson

Lisa Haber-Thomson

Instructor in Architecture, Harvard University


To sign up for the online course, visit the edX site page and select Enroll Now.

Please note that the online course content and course sign-up process are managed entirely by edX. For questions on how to enroll for the course, please contact edX Support.

You can upgrade to the Certificate track at any point during the course by clicking on the “Upgrade to Verified” button from your edX dashboard.

Screenshot of Upgrade to Verified button on the edX platform

For further help, read edX’s guide on verified certificates or contact edX Support.

You are able to upgrade to the verfied track at any point until 10 days prior to the course end date.

The Architectural Imagination qualifies for 10.0 AIA Learning Units.

In order to add AIA Learning Units for The Architectural Imagination, you will need to have the following:

  1. The URL link from your edX Verified Certificate
  2.  Your AIA Member Account #

Please submit both items above to GSD Executive Education to apply for AIA Learning Units.

The GSD Executive Education fee covers the administrative cost to add AIA Learning Units, provided that you meet the following requirements:

  • You have an edX verified certificate for the completion of The Architectural Imagination course 
  • You are an AIA Member

Please note that the fee does not cover any costs associated with signing up and enrolling for the actual online course, which is managed entirely by edX.

We accept payments via Credit Card (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover) or Electronic Check/ACH.

To find the certificate URL, use one of the following methods.

Use the Browser Address bar.
1. Open the certificate in your browser, and then click on the certificate ID.

Harvard Verified Certificate example

The certificate opens in a new browser page.2. Copy the URL from the browser address bar.

Create the URL manually.
1. Open the certificate in your browser, and then copy the certificate ID.
2. Use the following URL, replacing certificate_ID with the certificate ID that you copied.<certificate_ID>

For example, your certificate URL might resemble the following URL.

You should see your Learning Units reflected on your AIA transcript within 10 business days of registering with GSD Executive Education to apply for AIA Learning Units. GSD Executive Education will report your attendance to AIA directly, and you will receive a confirmation letter from us. After receipt of this letter, and any time in the future, please contact AIA for a transcript of your Learning Units.

You can sign up for membership through the AIA website.

Need help? Contact AIA Information Central at 1-800-242-3837 or [email protected]

AIA offers international membership options for individuals based outside of the U.S. For more information, please visit the AIA membership website or contact AIA Information Central at 1-800-242-3837 /[email protected].

The Architectural Imagination


Fee:  Free (audit), $259 (verified), $100 (add-on for AIA LUs)
10 weeks | 3 – 5 hours pert week
AIA Learning Units: 10
Language: English
Video Transcript: English