An invitation to take a seat
The chairs are bright. It is something everyone comments on.
When they first arrived a few years ago as an experiment in changing Harvard Yard as a public space, one of the first things people pointed out was how they did not look very Harvard. Mostly, people said this in a good way.
There were a couple hundred of them in lollipop-colored aluminum - yellow and orange and red and neon green - light and untethered, available for whatever. They appeared after a committee charged with improving the social spaces on campus thought one way to soften the feel of the Yard was to introduce a very simple tool: the chair.
“People felt that there was no invitation to linger at Harvard Yard, and the message of the structures was just ‘Head along the walkways to your destination,’ ’’ said Harvard’s president, Drew Faust. “They were meant to say that Harvard Yard isn’t a place you have to rush through.’’
As a piece of landscaping, the Yard has been unchanged for hundreds of years, lots of angular paths with grassy areas between, heavily used by visitors, students, neighbors, staff, and the hundreds of freshman who call it their home. It has never been a place you parked your car, regardless of your accent; in fact, the paths are more like narrow highways for the thousands who traverse them each day.
And so the chairs, which reappeared April 9 for their third spring, have become popular respites amidst the rush, where they are used in the million minor ways that people use a chair. People read in them. They sleep. They chat, or they don’t. And over and over, they turn them to keep the sun from wiping out their electronic screens.
Melissa Machit and Goretti Gonzalez had the honor of the being the first two people to sit in them and get into a deep animated discussion this year, and Machit, like many, started her appraisal with the colors. “It’s nice to mess up the monochrome Harvard look,’’ she said; almost every inch of real estate around her was red brick. “I’m just so glad they’re not crimson.’’
Philosophically, Machit liked the concept of the chairs, and one of the ideas for putting them there, to encourage accidental connections. But she said the truth was her group had arranged theirs specifically to avoid someone they knew.
The chairs - modeled after those used in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris - come both upright and in repose, and in the three years they’ve been out for the warmer months, have been used for outdoor classes and games of musical chairs and lots in between.
Tourists, who come to rub the foot of the John Harvard statue and pose for photos, have been huge fans of the chairs, places to sit with the students, to interact and ask questions, and sometimes just stare at them as if they are parts of the scenery.
“If you sit and read, they take your picture,’’ said Canyon Woodward, a freshman.
Choosing chairs that are light and movable “says you’re welcome to sit here exactly where you would like,’’ said Galen Cranz, a professor in the department of architecture at the University of California-Berkeley and author of “The Chair,’’ a treatise on the history and sociology of sitting.
“That’s a big message,’’ she said. “You’re giving people a choice. That shows regard for somebody’s comfort.’’
Judith Engerman was walking back from CVS to her house in Cambridge when she saw the chairs, plopped down hard, and opened a newspaper. She was not a student, she said, but she loved the colors and seeing them back on a blustery day was, she said, a sign of spring. She found a moment of sunshine and tilted her head back.
President Faust is a regular sitter in the chairs. She likes eavesdropping, likes listening to whatever connection is happening. And, like everyone else, she likes the colors.
Faust said that the chairs invite people to sit and be part of the community by changing and morphing the chairs around. “You have the sense of adventure in a way, that the chairs give you agency and possibility,’’ she said. “It’s a new way of experiencing an iconic space.’’
And the colors, Faust said. Everyone mentions the colors. She called them “preposterously bright.’’ She meant that in a good way.