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The Poetics of Place by Natasha B. '16

Snippets from my "Critical Writing for Designers" course at school down the street

I had lunch at Harvard today, on the stone steps of a building like any other Harvard building I’ve never been in. I sat with a dear friend and ate the blackberries and apple and cheese I brought from home, and the kids trudged past to their classes, and I wondered how I would have turned out if I’d gone to Harvard. (I think I’m glad I didn’t, I think I like the way I’ve turned out at MIT, but you always wonder).

The opportunity to cross-register at Harvard (or Wellesley, or MassArt, or the School of the Museum of Fine Arts) appealed to me when I applied here, and it must be a draw for many other people too. Yet somehow I made it to my final semester without taking any classes elsewhere. I signed up for “The Poetics of Place” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as a last-minute remedy. From the course description I judged it right up my alley, my cup of tea, all that, as it is both a writing class and (kind of) an architecture or urbanism class. And it is my cup of tea. So I spend every Monday morning at the GSD (actually a shorter bike ride from my house than MIT), and I meet my beautiful friend for lunch, and on my way home in the afternoon I stop at the Cambridge Public Library (my great love and alternative home) and pick out books. Sometimes I come to this coffee shop, Darwin’s, where I am now, and work and have a cookie. Today I sat down to work and instead read an essay about fencing and the teaching of Toni Morrison, listened to a new song, and looked over my last assignment for Poetics of Place.

The assignment: “Walk through, around Carpenter Center and write a short description-explanation with one photo (by you) or a sketch (by you) or an interpretive mapping (by you) or collage (by you). Don’t think too much. Write as fast as you can. There’s no correct way to do this. Find your own rhythm. Experiment. Record your fleeting impressions. Tell us something about your own expectations, what you already knew, your feelings, anecdotes, personal and critical opinions about the architecture, light, reflections, sense of space. If you have time, try more than one pass. Edit out the dead wood and try to create a collage, a dense layering of your favorite passages. It doesn’t have to make total sense and can take the form of a sequence of disconnected word sketches.”

And what I wrote:

Notes on the Carpenter Center

Stacked curves and pillars: these are also words to describe the body of a woman (very different from this building, which is a machine at rest).

It is a warm day cooling down and growing gray. There is cacophony of birdsounds.

The ramp swoops, swift, like something taking flight, and opens into a glaring square of sunlight (just this time of day).

There is purple gravel and the smell of something herbal or chemical—spicy and clean. Men in work clothes walk back and forth in the woodshop. Arabic music is playing.

I have come to an elevated garden. Sweet rosemary, tinted blue, blown southeast. The ramp curves down into a gentle landing and the view is of Harvard, green grass and red brick, people in Harvard clothes. There are brown fallen maple leaves scattered on the raised ground—they did not have far to fall, from the branches of their tree to the second-story plant bed—among the roots of the wind-flattened shrubbery.

The bookshop is unopened. Many shelves are bare and books lie in stacks on the table. I keep to the outside of the building. I smell cooking meat. A bell chimes. Moss grows thick in the cracks between the gray stone tiles. A potted agave in a window is fat and jubilant: it has watched winter from a high place.

Grids of windows, the lighting moon behind a smudge of cloud—coming into its own, now, as the smudge turns to wisp and leaves the moon bare and white, one faded sliver from fullness.

A young man in black shoes walks quickly and self-consciously. A man in white shoes, with white hair and a brown paper grocery bag, takes slower steps, cushioned by the soles of his sneakers and enveloped by the sweeping of the blue, blue jeans.

Inside: there are “pneumatic bodies,” great eggs of air in translucent plastic skin, seamed lengthwise. It is quiet and I am not sure where I am allowed to go so I circle the eggs. One rolls to and from me in a breeze I don’t feel, like a boat on smooth water or a breath in the air. There is ink on the walls.

Outside again: the sun now is a golden glance turning away. The air is soft and bare branches stretch to the sky like thousands of anxious or eager fingers. One trees hides pink buds in the tips of its fingers. Carefully, like tiny rosy eggs, half-shadowed by sunset.

It’s past that time of day now, getting on to dusk, and I am thinking of heading home soon, thinking whether I’ll stop at the library. The house I live in now will only be my home for a few more months. Considering this, stopping at the library seems more urgent. My post-graduation plans are not cemented, but they may take me far away from the Cambridge Public Library Main Branch. I should get what I can while I’m here.