The Radcliffe Institute’s annual barbecue felt a bit like a cafeteria on the first day of high school. Heavy rains the previous night forced the event into a nearby lecture hall, and the new fellows shuffled from table to table, making small talk about their projects and trying to find a place to sit. In the line for the buffet, a woman in front of me politely asked what I was studying. I told her, “History and literature,” and she sighed.
“It seems like everyone studies history here,” she said, a little wearily, as I scooped a pile of baked beans onto my plate. “Even the scientists. It’s not enough just to do biology or chemistry these days, you have to do the history of science as well.”
I could see why she had that impression: the barbecue was also being held to celebrate the opening of a new public art installation, “100+ Years at 73 Brattle,” itself the product of careful historical research. Every two years, the Radcliffe Institute has a competition among members of the Harvard community to create an art installation to fill the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden, a roughly square-shaped vacant lot, hemmed with trees, across the street from the Loeb Drama Center.
This year’s winning entry came from John Wang ’16, who entered the architecture program at Graduate School of Design (GSD) this fall. He applied to the competition on a whim while still an undergrad in the history of art and architecture, and used it as an opportunity to combine his love of history with a blossoming interest in creating designs.
After scouring building plans and maps of 73 Brattle, he created a garden that represents three structures that occupied it during the last century. The first was the Bates house, a private home to a family of 10 before it was sold to the Sawin family. Radcliffe College then bought the Sawin house and used it for a variety of different purposes: first the building hosted classes, then it became a general store, developing film, lending books, and selling luxury goods like greeting cards, perfumes, and marmalade. When Radcliffe decided to expand in 1930, they demolished the structure and erected the Gilman building as a temporary site for science and math classes. As construction on the expanded college finished up two years later, that building was destroyed. The space has been vacant ever since.
But when you walk by the installation, at first glance, it’s difficult to discern Wang’s intent. Wooden stairs descend into a stage-like area, in such a way that the space could easily pass as an amphitheater. Next to the stage is a flat gravel plot where you can imagine someone having a picnic. Dense thickets of lavender surround the sunken garden, and bees hover above the flowers. Printed on the various surfaces of the garden are dates: 1821 on the wooden stairs, 1875 on the rock wall, 1930 on a metal lining off to the side. Each element of the installation is intended to evoke a different era in the history of 73 Brattle. The wooden planks evoke the fragile foundation of the Bates house, and the sunken gravel space corresponds to the Sawin house; the surrounding lavender traces the footprint of the short-lived Gilman building.
Although plaques off to the side of the installation give some context—and a website provides a more complete narrative—art is a visceral, visual medium. An art installation isn’t the same as a textbook or a research paper—it’s hard to translate to the casual viewer, wordlessly, the hours Wang spent poring over maps and building notices. How does an architect make history into something a viewer can feel?
“That’s really the fun part,” Wang told me, on a tour of the grounds a few days before the installation’s opening. “As a student, it’s easy to do the history, do the reading, do the writing, but it’s fun to think on your feet, to think about things like ‘The soil spills over in that part of the exhibit—what do we do with that?’ or ‘The stones don’t line up.’”
Wang soon found that evoking history through design, unlike writing about it, is imprecise. The rusty, weathered quality of the rocks that line the garden give the viewer the sense that they are from the past, but the rocks actually have no relation to the Bates or Sawin houses—instead, they came from modern building foundations around the Cambridge area. And though Wang dreamed of planting chamomile around the site, because the Sawin house general store sold it, he couldn’t find a vendor who sold chamomile plants anywhere in Massachusetts, so he replaced it with lavender.
For its designer, this imprecision was the space’s charm, making it feel open to possibility. “Anyone from Cambridge can be here, it’s public,” he said, growing visibly excited. “You could come here and just sit and read. Or it would be really awesome if someone could play violin here and have a mini-concert. Or picnic up on the deck. Or maybe you just want to look at it. It is an art installation, after all.” At bottom, though, he thinks of the installation as a social space. “From the beginning I’ve thought of it as an intimate space that would be conducive to conversations, to people spending time here.” After all, the Sawin, Bates, and Gilman structures were all intimate spaces that hosted families and students, facilitating learning and conversation.
As the fellows finished lunch, the dean of the Radcliffe institute invited Wang up to the podium to introduce the installation. He explained a little bit about the history of the space, and cited a few of his influences, before ending with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “The historical sense involves the perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” He repeated: “Not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”
Since starting at the GSD, Wang says he’s realized that this historical perspective is an unusual thing for a designer to have, one that will serve him in his work both in school and beyond. “I feel like we as a culture, in design especially, are very obsessed with innovation and being original and being new,” he said. “But I think there is a lot of richness in looking into the past and reinterpreting it, to make history and design reciprocally inform each other.”
After the speech, the fellows and I went out to see the finished garden. We walked up the deck, dragged our feet through the gravel, swatted away the bees hovering nearby. Wang stood off to the side, smiling. No longer having to build the installation, he could finally watch it work.