Open Spaces

“This place is so much nicer without those banners,” a friend said the other day as we walked through the Law School yard, articulating something simple but insightful about Harvard. When graduation rolls around, every yard around campus undergoes a sudden makeover. Tailored by teams of landscapers and decked out in tents and stages and banners, they become the centerpieces of the school’s famed pomp and circumstance, the sacrosanct, stately grounds of the old academy where Latinate phrases and laminate cards, heartfelt hugs and Kleenex, and clicking cameras abound. Of course, the glut of decoration aside, the scenes those cameras capture seem more real, painfully, bittersweetly real, than anything else that happens at Harvard. But what those graduation photos miss is a piece of reality underneath it all, the beautiful truth of Harvard beneath all the chairs and the caps and gowns and the crimson: the open spaces themselves.

Like anyone else who’s ever come to Harvard, the Yard was firmly planted in my brain as the sole symbol of the school long before I had even stepped foot in Memorial Hall, or knew about The Crimson, or what HUPD stood for, or how to get inside Widener, or where Hollis was (still not sure of that). My earliest memories of the Yard jibe with the way I sometimes see it in old woodcuts: quiet, orderly, stately in its serenity—with the modern addition of the tourists who come to admire the red brick and gather around John Harvard’s foot. I bet this official version of the Yard is the one that sticks in the minds of most visitors. But it’s not the version of the Yard I’ll remember.

I prefer the Yard where one night freshman year some friends and I began a makeshift Primal Scream, half-naked, more drunk on life than on someone’s moonshine, gleefully befriending everyone we traipsed past; the one where earlier this year I and others made fruit juice atop a wooden press that my friend had constructed beneath the oak trees; the Yard where one night this year a dance party paraded, fueled by hundreds of portable radios; or the Yard through which a ragtag bunch marched with a bizarre, colorful, 10-foot fabric cube in the first snowfall of the year—for no good reason, but for every great reason.

So it went for most open spaces at the college. Any time the weather would allow, and even sometimes not, we transformed our yards. Whether it was sharing poems and bread under the crabapple trees near Houghton library or having a picnic in Quincy courtyard or stretching out at the Business School or gathering in the Sunken Garden at Radcliffe, 50 strong, armed with makeshift instruments, art supplies and bottles of wine, reveling in the spring grass and the serendipitous sprinklers, my friends and I managed to forge our own little commencement events where frivolity replaced ceremony. These yards, where we’ve lounged or played ball, or caught a precious glimpse of nature, are just as much, if not more, a part of Harvard than the libraries, the dorms, and the classrooms.

I’m not sure exactly what draws us to the Yard—by which I mean all yards: perhaps it’s a craving for our own temporary Waldens, or perhaps it’s just our need for communal space (something the College otherwise sorely lacks). Whatever it is, I’ve come to appreciate the place of the Yard in Harvard’s mythos. Combining secluded tranquility with a sense of openness and accessibility, the Yard aptly signifies the central paradox of the public-minded university. If ivy-covered walls forbid the curious from peeking in on the cloistered life of the academy, open gates and sumptuous lawns beckon with a spirit of public generosity.

Meandering between the undeniable exclusivity of our Harvard experience and our necessary places in the outside world, we stand at this divide whether we like it or not. As we prepare to make the leap from one side of the gates to the other, the message left for us on one of those gates by a much older class of Harvard sharpens the difference between where we are and where we’re going: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom,” commands the entrance, and “Depart to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind,” says the exit. But don’t we already strive to do both at once? Aren’t the boundaries of the Yard—the space and the College itself—more porous than ever before? Indeed, is that old motto, explicating the separation between Harvard and the world, any more necessary nowadays than the old gate and the wall on which it’s written?

Despite Harvard’s emphasis on open space—arguably the signature element of the campus—walls tend to crop up around here, not only outside the College but within it as well. If they aren’t made of brick, the walls are more insidious, held up by elitism, prejudice, or just plain reluctance. While most groups are open to anyone on campus, sometimes they can become overly self-selective. The sad result can be a set of firm boundaries with little interaction between people that might have interests in common. Meanwhile, final clubs and art groups tend to restrict their membership along lines that often seem arbitrary, turning community- and art-making into a competitive social sport. But campus groups and Harvard itself need not give up their high standards to give up elitism or unnecessary selectivity. All we need to do is consider how high our standards can go without a good dose of openness—open-mindedness, accessibility, and inclusion of others not like us.

We need even more healthy open spaces, literally and figuratively. The former may be coming in the form of Harvard’s Allston campus, for which planners have promised to turn unused asphalt lots into green spaces, while ensuring that new buildings are environmentally friendly. But keeping Harvard’s figurative spaces open requires attention too. Some years back the real estate office published an obsessively researched tome called “Harvard Patterns,” which refers to the Yard’s “loose geometrical rigor,” and deduces that the “movement between spaces rarely occurs on-axis, but instead requires a shift onto a sub-axis, which itself usually organizes a subsidiary space in the composition.” In other words, moving through Harvard’s fluid open spaces leads to even more open spaces. We don’t need geometry to know that this is the way the Yard was designed and the way that Harvard and the world on the whole operates best: open to new ideas, people, places, and new ways of seeing the same old thing. The spaces we pass through in our caps and gowns have been transformed, but not for good. Only Harvard students can really transform them.

Alex L. Pasternack ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. He is a Crimson news editor.