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Gates of Harvard Yard 
Edited with an introduction by Blair Kamin
Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
Reviewed by Elena Saporta ASLA

As one rushes from one section of the Harvard University campus to another, it’s easy to overlook the 25 gates that enclose Harvard Yard. Passersby scarcely notice these portals, particularly those that remain in a perpetually closed position. These structures and their tall, connecting fences function much in the manner of background music.

Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize–winning archi­tecture critic for The Chicago Tribune, gently persuades us to pause at each one, to stop and listen for the voices embedded in these brick, iron, and limestone assemblages. Kamin, who spent some time on the grounds of Harvard Yard as a 2012 Nieman Fellow, has compiled more than two dozen essays describing each of its gates.

Two articles, “Harvard Memorial Gates,” from Architectural Review, and “The Enclosure of the Harvard Yard,” from Harvard Library Bulletin, published in 1901 and 1983, respectively, provided the foun­dation for Gates of Harvard Yard. Working with his 2013 Harvard winter-session students, Kamin undertook the task of formulating a comprehensive history of the gates. He and his coauthors — with the smart addition of sketches, photographs, and an aerial map — take readers on a leisurely clockwise stroll around the yard, starting with the west side’s Johnston Gate. Designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1889, Johnston was the first and remains the grandest of Harvard’s gates. 

The Neo-Georgian structure standing confidently between Harvard Hall (1766) and Massachusetts Hall (1720) has come to emblematize Harvard. As such, it represents a significant depar­ture from Harvard College’s puritan roots. Before 1889, Harvard Yard had been defined merely by a simple post and rail fence. The construction of Meyer Gate came on the heels of Johnston, and a rapid succession of gate and fence projects ensued. With a few exceptions, McKim, Mead & White served as the go-to architectural firm. Individual classes of alumni were responsible for sponsoring and dedicating 15 of the 25 portals we see today.

Many endearing details and quirks of history emerge from the pages of this small, delightful book. One is reminded of Reverend Phillips Brooks’ quote, “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth shall set you Free” that appears as an inscription adorning the 1881 Gate outside the Phillips Brooks House at the yard’s northwest corner. The words of Charles Eliot, longtime Harvard president, appear at Dexter Gate along the yard’s southern edge. From Massachusetts Avenue, one reads, “Enter to Grow in Wisdom” and on the reverse side, “Depart to Serve Better thy Country and Mankind.” The 1870 gate, now closed, gracefully frames Holden Chapel and its adjoining intimate, almost secret court­yards. At the yard’s southwest corner, the 1857 Gate was built after the Civil War as a gesture to welcome students hailing from both the North and the South. The most recent addition to the family is the Bradstreet Gate, completed in 1997. Dedicated to the women of Harvard, it commemorates the memory of Anne Dudley Bradstreet, first published poet of the American colonies.

In the introduction, Kamin states, “There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and gates.” Those are words for thought as one follows Kamin and his collaborators on their walk around Harvard Yard and their journey back to the Harvard of 1889.

Elena Saporta ASLA is a landscape architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her firm, ESLA, established in 1990, specializes in the design and greening of urban spaces.

Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design 
Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith 
Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
Reviewed by Gordon Bruce

“I think it’s sad that we rarely hear from people who have something to say . . . ” This portion of a statement by Michael Graves underscores the central theme of this compact, engrossing book. In examining the career paths of 20 design professionals who have lived past the age of 80, this collection of interviews weaves a rich tapestry of talent — authors; educators; architects; industrial designers; furniture, lighting, and textile designers; illustrators; philanthropists; and combinations thereof — all of whom have wisdom to share.

These 20 figures share the same period of history, albeit in diverse environments, and have contributed enormously to their various disciplines, so their names bear listing: Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Bob Gill, Michael Graves, Richard Hollis, Lora Lamm, Deborah Sussman, Denise Scott Brown, Phyllis Lambert, Alessandro Mendini, Ricardo Scofidio, Stanley Tigerman, Ingo Mauer, Beverly Willis, Charles Harrison, Richard Sapper, Ralph Caplan, Jane Thompson, Jens Risom, and Jack Lenor Larsen.

In spite of their convoluted journeys, all 20 luminaries prevailed through the Depression and World War II, achieving careers that were advanced either through education or other serendipitous opportunities. During this period, most design-related professions were dominated by white males, and minorities and women confronted additional preju­dices and barriers. The interviews with these pioneers — who list fisherman, philosopher, stand-up comedian, pilot, and dancer among their first jobs — collectively demonstrate that there is no singular guaranteed pathway to achieving excellence in any field.

As an industrial designer for more than 40 years, I found it easy to relate to Twenty Over Eighty; its rich diversity of creative occupations, backgrounds, and personalities made for absorbing material. Its stark contrast to trendy design clichés and pervasive communication that continually bombard our culture — branding, user experience (UX), design thinking, and so on — made it a refreshing read.

During these last 25 to 30 years, the various design professions, which include architecture and advertising as well as furniture, industrial, product, and graphic design, have had to change drastically because of digitalization. Every interview in the book echoes with the same drumbeat: that individual leadership and critical evaluation have been replaced with professions that seek to compromise ideas in order to achieve coherence and harmony in groupthink environments. This, of course, dilutes the quality of design, making the conversations in this book all the more meaningful.

By highlighting each creative professional’s character and integrity, Kwun and Smith deftly unveil how each one was able to nourish ideas while allowing for reflection on the most meaningful ups and downs of his or her respective career. I appreci­ated learning a lot about people I knew little about and even more about people whom I thought I knew all about. My only criticism: There are other admirable designers who have lived past the age of 80 and who have contributed so much to the various design professions, and I only wish that they, too, could have been included.

Along with being a resource-rich compendium, Twenty Over Eighty is, appropriately, thoughtfully designed. At the beginning of each of the 20 sections, a colorful “quick start” page highlights a brief biography, which is followed by a few pages of dialogue that outline the interviewee’s experi­ences and visual examples of design and architecture; chronologies at the end of the book help fill in additional biographical details. Overall, it expresses a welcome — and all too rare — quality of user-friendliness.

Gordon Bruce is an industrial design consultant based in New Milford, Connecticut, who has worked with multinational corporations in Asia, Europe, and the US. He is also the author of a monograph about Eliot Noyes.

Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal
Joseph Alexiou
NYU Press, 2015
Reviewed by Suzanne Spellen

Gowanus, one of the most important neighborhoods in Brooklyn, makes up a great deal of what was once called South Brooklyn. That’s a big claim for a gritty, low-density industrial area with a long body of toxic water running through it, but there it is. The industry generated by the canal employed enough workers to populate at least three working-class neighborhoods, as well as the money to build many of the mansions up on the hill in Park Slope.

I’ve been writing about Brooklyn’s architecture and history since 2009 and know a fair bit about this city’s 19th-century history. I’ve always found Gowanus fascinating, so I hoped Joseph Alexiou’s account would reveal new information in an interesting way. I was not disappointed. The best histories are, at their heart, great stories, and Alexiou is a gifted storyteller.

The book is a chronological history of Gowanus and its people, from the Native Americans, through the Dutch, the canal visionaries, the robber barons, the mobsters, the working folk, and, finally, the hipster transplants of modern-day Brooklyn. All put their mark on Gowanus, and all get their due. 

If Alexiou wasn’t such a deft journalist, this might have amounted to nothing more than names, data, and dates. His coverage of the Battle of Brooklyn is as well told as the battle to develop Gowanus over the years. My favorite section concerns the busi­ness dealings of the family of Edwin Litchfield, who owned much of Gowanus by the mid-19th century. Litchfield could look north from the porch of his new villa on the hill, now part of Prospect Park, and see all the way to the harbor. Everything within his gaze was his.

His was a tale of Big Real Estate, Big Ego, Big Money, and Big Business. Alexiou conjures up a wonderful word painting of Litchfield’s world and backs it up with copious quotes from articles that appeared in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the city’s most popular newspaper. The Eagle could be as businesslike as The Wall Street Journal and as gossipy as Page Six of the New York Post. It was the perfect medium to chronicle Litchfield’s exploits, and the author makes us a part of this battle to buy, sell, develop, and control South Brooklyn and much of Park Slope.

Not bad for a swamp that nursed wildlife and orchards, ran red with the blood of patriots, and then spent almost 100 years as another kind of battleground, this time a fight between landowners, government, and private enterprise. In the end, Brooklyn had a canal with heavy industry and businesses along its length that helped make her one of America’s great industrial and financial powerhouses. 

The fight and colossal failure to keep the canal functioning is as complex a tale as its creation. Alexiou brings industrialists, land barons, bureaucrats, criminals, and ordinary South Brooklynites to life; his use of source materials, especially the Brooklyn Eagle’s archives, is impressive. 

He ends the book with Gowanus in the midst of yet another battle — between Big Real Estate, which envisions a modern, upscale neighborhood along a cleaned-up canal, and those who would like to preserve factory buildings and row houses for future generations through adaptive reuse and community revitalization. Alexiou may have to write a second volume, continuing his engrossing dive into this fascinating and ever-changing neighborhood.

Suzanne Spellen, under the pen name “Montrose Morris,” writes for Brownstoner, a real estate, history, and lifestyle blog about Brooklyn. An architectural historian, she is currently working on a series of books on Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.