The Mind Behind the Chairs

“I was always thinking, ‘Is there something inexpensive and not too crazy that we can do to make the Yard friendlier for a public school kid from Ohio?’” says Michael R. Van Valkenburgh, Graduate School of Design professor. The consensus answer was to purchase a number of bright Luxembourg chairs and place them throughout the Yard.

The bright pink, orange, and yellow chairs contrasting with the Yard’s muted fall tones has surely left more than one newcomer to Harvard’s campus feeling a little perplexed—no matter the chairs’ comfort or practicality.

These chairs represent a smaller-scale attempt to create social space at Harvard, part of the Common Spaces program that includes the new Science Center Plaza and the recently announced Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center. The addition of the colorful chairs in 2009 was motivated by the desire to make the Yard a more accesible and engaging common space for the community.

The installation was largely the effort of Michael R. Van Valkenburgh, a Graduate School of Design  professor and the head of MVVA, a landscape architecture firm based in New York and Cambridge. MVVA has also contributed landscape designs to Princeton, Vassar, Cornell, and Penn’s campuses, among others. Van Valkenburgh traces the origins of his fascination with landscape architecture to a trip to Europe during his senior year in high school. He and his best friend were exploring Paris one night when they ended up in the Jardin des Tuileries.

“A feeling came over me that was completely electric and memorable,” says Van Valkenburgh. “I knew I was in this place of great civility and urbanity.” Six months later, Van Valkenburgh’s freshman ecology professor told the class that if he had the opportunity to begin again, he’d be a landscape architect. The professor had provided a career path for the inclination that had begun for Van Valkenburgh in Paris: “That’s how landscape architecture started for me.”

As the GSD’s Charles Eliot Professor, Van Valkenburgh carries on the legacy of Charles Eliot, Jr., the son of the 21st president of Harvard. “Along with Olmstead, Eliot was one of the first great American landscape architects,” says Van Valkenburgh. “[Landscape architecture] goes back extremely far in history as something that Eliot was involved in, and the discipline of landscape architecture is one of Harvard’s great traditions in global culture.”

For Van Valkenburgh, the Harvard Yard restoration maintains this longstanding tradition. “I am enormously proud and very satisfied by the work that I’ve done in the Yard,” he says, citing it as one of his personal favorite projects.

The project itself began around 1990, when Van Valkenburgh was part of a team hired to restore Harvard Yard’s tree canopy, working in tandem with architects modernizing the freshmen dorms. Striving to preserve both the history and environment of the Yard, Van Valkenburgh and MVVA paid careful attention to the aesthetic details of the space as they began replanting 20 species of trees. The project ultimately earned several awards, including the National Trust’s 1994 Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

Along with playing a major role in reinvigorating the natural aspects of the Yard, Van Valkenburgh is also one of the key figures behind the chairs scattered on the grass.  “The chairs came about on the heels of a study that Harvard commissioned called the Common Spaces program,” explains Van Valkenburgh, stating that the primary goal of the project was to look at the main core of the campus and ask how the space could be made more “friendly.” The initiative itself was founded by President Drew Faust in early 2008, shortly after she assumed office.

“Drew absolutely wanted to do something to declare her values as president,” says Van Valkenburgh. “She wanted to have a project that would take place in her first year and would instill a sense of warmth and community at Harvard.”He adds, “Before the chairs were out there, there was basically no place to sit besides on the steps of buildings.”

The overarching message of the chairs also appeals to Van Valkenburgh on a personal level. “I went to a modest, rural high school,” he says, “and I remember the first time I walked into Harvard Yard, which was gaspingly beautiful but also somewhat overwhelming.”

When working on the project, he says, “I was always thinking, ‘Is there something inexpensive and not too crazy that we can do to make the Yard friendlier for a public school kid from Ohio?’” The consensus answer was to purchase a number of bright Luxembourg chairs and place them throughout the Yard.

Van Valkenburgh and his firm have also targeted areas of Harvard’s campus besides the Yard for reinvigoration, including a new public space at the Law School, next to Pound Hall.

“It was fantastic working with the Dean Martha Minow of the Law School,” Van Valkenburgh says, “because she was completely concerned with the social life of her students and the kinds of things people need in the intensity of that environment.”

As Van Valkenburgh continues his work upholding one of Harvard’s “great traditions” of landscape architecture, he is also deeply aware of the importance of change and constant reevaluation, in addition to preserving history. The bright chairs clustered around imposing centuries-old buildings are only one example of this effort.

“The message of the space is now completely different,” says Van Valkenburgh. “If you’re that kid from Ohio, and you see 300 freshmen sitting around on colorful chairs, it’s a pretty friendly sight.”