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Why The Gates of Harvard Yard Exemplify Great Urban Design

Critic Blair Kamin explores the unique history of the school's ornate gateways, and their relevance to modern architecture and design

In the flurry of architecture and activity that greets those entering Harvard Yard, it’s easy for visitors to miss the 25 gates that ring the university grounds. But as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin examines in his new book Gates of Harvard Yard (Princeton Architectural Press), there is so much more to these 25 gateways in Cambridge, Massachusetts, than their roles as ceremonial entrances and exits.

"To see these gates is to appreciate that gateways aren’t something out of the dim architectural past," says Kamin. "They should be part of the present and future. There’s always a human desire to demarcate and declare that this space is mine, and that won’t go away. They key is having those structures and expressions make a contribution to the public realm and not merely be utilitarian eyesores. Harvard’s gates set a standard. They’re made for a private institution, but have a public purpose, announcing you’re entering into a unique place with incredible artistry."

Constructed on campus in the late 19th and early 20th century, these gates, many of which were designed by the preeminent architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, symbolize a turning point in Harvard's history and campus design. Built during an early era of urbanization, when streetcars began roaring through the neighborhood around Harvard Square, they helped shield campus from the city. But they also showcased how an institution that began as a small, provincial New England college was transforming into a research university of global import.

As Kamin and his co-authors reveal in a series of essays, these gates contain meaning far beyond their simple iron shapes and symbols. The push to build the gates, which replaced post-and-rail fences that had surrounded the school since colonial times, began with Harvard alumni Samuel Johnson, a Chicago-based real estate magnate, left $10,000 in his will to the school for the purpose of building a new gate. McKim, Mead & White drew influences from both the City Beautiful movement and the country’s colonial past, pushing 18th century Georgian design above then-popular Gothic and Victorian styles.

Their gorgeous wrought iron designs not only influenced the look of Harvard Yard and the entire campusreflected in the design of structures such as the business school and the footbridge across the Charles Riverbut also stand as great examples of gateways as branding exercises. As Kamin explains, the process of researching this book, digging into their history and examining the original blueprints that gave shape to these structures, offered insights into the modern need for more thoughtful gateways.

"I'm not nostalgic, and don't think we should go back to 1889 and do City Beautiful gates for every campus in the United States," he says. "But this symbolic idea of joining a community, of being part of something larger than yourself, is a very rich lode to mine."

What caught your eye about these gates and made you decide to do a deep dive? What about them captured your attention?

"I could have written a book called the doors of Harvard Yard, but the gates really are the doors of Harvard Yard. Several buildings on the yard, like Widener Library, are entered from the yard, not the street. They turn their backs on the street, so the gates really fill this void. They are the doorways into the yard, and the university as a whole. They endow the yard’s very eclectic mix of buildings with a unifying ribbon of brick, stone, and wrought iron. The ironwork is extraordinary, filled with leaves, flowers, as well as spear-tipped finials. So they’re naturalistic, not just militaristic. They enclose the yard and extend its pastoral identity out to the urban edge."

It’s interesting to examine this era of design, especially in light of today’s focus on more efficient, functional campus architecture.

"It’s not just the efficient, functional structures, it’s also the current fad for importing starchitects and having them do their thing, as if the campus is an architectural petting zoo. Continuity matters. Ceremony matters. A sense of variety, of passage, of arriving into something greater than oneself matters. Many campuses, certainly not all, would be enriched by a series of gateways that took this idea into account, much like our cities would benefit from looking at their gateways, such as airports, railway systems, and other points of entry."

There also seems to be so much symbolism in these gates beyond their physical manifestation. It seems like they mark a big break.

"There’s no question it was a break. I think it signals a certain tension in town-gown relations between Harvard and Cambridge. At Amherst, where I went, there were no gates. The campus flows directly into the town, and that signals a certain comity, one that isn’t necessarily present in Cambridge. The gates do symbolize those tensions, and they are instruments of control. During the Occupy Movement in 2011, Harvard required people who wanted to enter the yard to show a Harvard ID. So this privately owned public space was revealed for what it truly is, privately owned and controlled by Harvard. The gates and the fences on their flanks are interesting because, while they separate town and gown, they are transparent, not opaque. They allow people to see though into the yard. They're much different than the walled courtyards of Yale and New Haven, which are utterly disconnected from the streets around them. The gates also symbolize everything from Harvard’s Puritan past to the way it brought women into the all-male dormitories. The most recent gate, was dedicated in 1997, the Bradstreet Gate, is there to recognize the presence of women at Harvard. They do reveal the shifting aspirations and identity of Harvard, and weave the colonial past with the present."

What would a gate look like if it was designed and built today?

"We live in an age of architectural pluralism, so a gate could take any number of forms. It could be respectful, contextual, and traditional, like the Bradstreet Gate. It could be bracingly parametric, out of the late Zaha Hadid’s office. It could be an essay in curving steel, like the Division Street gateways in Chicago, which represent the Puerto Rican flag. There you have 45 tons of steel spanning the street, and the representation of the flag is formed in part from laser-cut steel. So in the end, the point isn’t style, or how the gate looks. It’s the importance of articulating a passageway, a spatial transition, that expresses the identity of a place or institution, and perhaps articulates an essential human transition, from ignorance to wisdom, captivity to freedom, or in the case of a cemetery, from live to death."

"I want to be clear I’m not advocating for gated communities. I’m not a fan of gated communities. I’m advocating for gateways. To look closely at the Harvard Gates is to see how much these carefully conceived portals can enrich our lives. Gates have been demonized in an era that values transparency and openness, in an age that equates closed gates with closed minds. My view from this study is that we need to unlock the beauty of gates. It’s about stopping, pausing, and seeing how they enrich the urban experience."

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