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Hitting The Bricks

By Joshua A. Kaufman

The bricks of Harvard Square hold a certain allure. They more resemble the color of the rich earth than does concrete. They hearken back to Boston's colonial history. They seem man-made (though their exactitude testifies otherwise), and they are man-laid. Most importantly, though, they are universal in this neighborhood, each foot of sidewalk being covered by--nay, created from--the red, rectangular blocks. One can walk from Mather House straight to the Quad in any number of ways solely on brick paths, save intersections. Along the way, one does not feel isolated from the buildings, for they, too, are forged from brick, or as is the case for the newer structures, are at least are covered by them. The combined effect of these facades of brick is a coherent city, constructed by human hands out of the local organic bounty. Despite difference in architectural style, The Crimson appears to emerge from the same material as Mass. Hall; St. Paul's seems connected through its brick tower to Hillel's courtyard; the Fly Club's austere walls and the Lampoon's funky tower are ostensibly of close origin.

But like life itself, this consistency is broken--and often. In the Square, we find the interruption that is modern Holyoke Center, as well as the glass front of what is now BankBoston. The Signet is of clapboard, University Hall of stone, and Widener's steps of granite. Grass defines the Yard and the Quad, and moss creeps through the cracks of the sidewalk. Asphalt covers all the streets, and white-washed something-or-other coats William James. But throughout, there is a sense of brick. It is Harvard's theme, perhaps lifted from Oxford or Cambridge, and made into further kitsch by scores of Ivy-admiring, mid-western schools. This continuity--not of style or design, but of material--conveys a sense of uniformity that is comforting. But this uniformity is ultimately false and imposed by men in the vain hope of controlling, taming if you will, their volatile, urban surroundings.

The bricks themselves cannot be made from the region's soil, for unlike fertile Virginia, the Massachusetts colonists found themselves richer in the harbor than the field. Similarly, Hillel and St. Paul's though superficially dedicated to such kin ventures as morality and God, differ on details like whether Christ is the messiah. Similar disagreements between The Crimson and Mass. Hall, and the Fly and Lampoon, need not be explicated. The point is this: urban planning can only do so much to make a community look and feel like one community. The rouge monotony that serves as Cambridge's controlling architectural authority is able to mask only the surface of life. The intended effect of brick omnipresence is coherence, or the idea that even institutions at cross-purposes with each other can meld into a seamless grouping. Coherence perpetuates the deception that we are all bound up in the same life as one another, and that this "fact" is necessary and good. Coherence says that things are purposeful, that they have a creator, indeed a single creator--something, not incidentally, that both Hillel and St. Paul's agree upon, and that the future of this community is dependent upon its past.

Such coherence is an appropriate context for a university, for coherence is the ultimate objective of all our moral reasoning and textual analysis. Though the graduate students among us will decry such sentiment as 19th century, it is nevertheless true that the very processes of cognitive reflection, scientific experimentation, psychological examination, biblical exegesis and sundry other academic pursuits, are attempts to discover, if not logic, at least meaning in the world. Nothing in itself needs explanation in order to exist or live: individuals, societies, the planet itself do not require guide plans, and if they are subject to the programs by knowledgeable consultants, they consistently fail to live up to set standards. Columnists, too, are guilty of the sin of coherence--they attempt to make meaning of the world on a daily basis. They tell you why Bill Clinton sent a brooch to Monica Lewinsky, what possessed the editors at Boston Magazine to call Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. "Head Negro in Charge," and how a Harvard economist was lured to Columbia with $300,000. Such ex post facto explanations serve to enhance perceptions of coherence. But if coherence is such a grand objective to pursue, why does it take so much damn work?

Making sense of the world is no easy task. Out of our "constellations of memory" (stolen from Sartre), we graft purpose onto an acted past, we draw narratives commemorating that which we later feel is significant, we weave quilts of determination out of a randomized existence, and we build brick cities to connect everyone with everything and everything to a purpose. We want to make sense of the lived environment and often we do--too often. For if it is possible to do so from marble. Why we choose one over the other is a matter of preference, economy, geography, history. Yet the possibility of multiple cities rising from the same ground and of multiple representations of the city in question has to leave the student covering the bricks feeling as if he is living not only in constructed space--that much is obvious--but that he or she could be living in any number of alternate variations of the present condition. Moreover, it becomes stifling, where it was once comforting, to conceive of the city as a unified whole, the Venice of light and reason as opposed to the wilds of Cyprus, the Greek agora standing as a proud refuge in a wilderness where only beasts reside.

Joshua A. Kaufman '98 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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