Talk of the Quad: A cold forest where nothing smells
Apparently, the College has decided to invest in something even older than fossil fuel—granite, especially the black and white variety and specimens of that variety that are rough and remind one that granite comes from the earth. Returning from two years away from campus, I was greeted all at once by this new stonework—the rectangle around the polar bear statue, the Moulton amphitheater, the gutters by Hatch, the speed humps on College Street, the stone paths out front of the Chapel. It looks clean and serves as an occasional impediment to bicyclists, which I remember as a lazy and entitled class of locomotes.
It is clear—Bowdoin has ambitions on a geologic scale, at least aesthetically. When Orient columnist Matthew Goodrich’s remains condense into crude oil, Bowdoin will use the resultant windfall to put granite facing on the dike around campus that holds back the sea.Ribbing aside, it is a new year, and a fine time for thoughts of image and legacy. What does all this stonework mean for Bowdoin? Aside from demonstrating, of course, that the school is enough in tune with the natural world to figure out where to get a lot of granite, it speaks of wealth and stability and the concept of “timeless beauty.” I am always curious as to what Bowdoin thinks of its appearance. It is clear that, over the past couple of years, the College has been thinking about how it is going to age, and how it is already aging.
You can see on the back of the Chapel, where it faces Studzinski, the claw marks from the vines of ivy that used to grow there. The ivy was handsome and produced small bunches of dark poisonous berries that the crows liked to eat—but its roots threatened the masonry. Like alcohol, ivy is lovely and fortifying until it finds some weakness to pry at—it must be closely watched. Last summer, the decision was made to rip it down.
The art museum, meanwhile, has had a mid-(quarter?) life crisis and has had some work done. I am not referring to the award-winning renovations of 2007, but to the de-greening of the museum’s bronze: the cupola and the statues of Demosthenes and Sophocles are back to their original dull brown. This cleanup work has been called a conservation effort.
In light of the other work around campus, though, I am inclined to read it more as a kind of posturing reminiscent of the Greeks’ recent efforts to rebuild the Parthenon—both presumably stem from a desire not to be officially associated with anything in a state of decay. Looking at the new entrance, we see granite and glass, which speak again of clarity and eternity and share an aesthetic with this author’s Macbook. The new entrance was built to help the museum control its climate—the old main entrance, with its massive ceremonious door, let too much of the outside in. It is at least immensely funny that, as our educations become less and less recognizable to one another, the facade that with names and busts of the old figures and benchmarks of education now bears this ominous sign on the inside of the glass, at its focal point: “EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY: ALARM WILL SOUND.”
Speaking of small pains, I remember sitting on the Quad facing the art museum as a tour guide led a group by the steps at a slow walk. She was telling her charges a story about how, when the lions that guard the facade were installed, the workers accidentally switched them. She added, lying now, that Bowdoin students knew this fact and were charmed by it.
Since I heard that story, those lions have only ever looked to me to be bored with each other and their supposed duty. I was thinking of calling for the College to switch them back, as a gesture, who knows, perhaps in line with the recent wire-brushing of Socrates.
Ultimately, though, the main entrance has been closed, and the cleaning of the statuary was an aesthetic twitch of a conservation effort that gives way to, rather than supports, the overall aesthetic project. That project is to give campus the impression of: glass, bushes, granite, natural light, and if not this gleam of the cutting edge, then at least an obedient cleanliness, like a cold forest where nothing smells. The ideals of this charming aesthetic are transparency and timelessness—two notions around which any student of human experience should hold his or her breath, for fear of becoming inspired by them.
As a final note for Facilities, and for those wondering why the Luddites on campus are always so late: time has changed since the sundials on Hubbard were last adjusted. No doubt, though, the old bronze gnomons will be burnished soon.