Monday, November 11, 2013

Public Space as Text: Stanford University

Stanford was founded 128 years ago today, I just discovered, which is how long it's seemed since my last blog. This quarter, I'm teaching Text Technologies again, and we have the whole of Stanford to roam around. Stanford's campus, or the oldest parts of it, is famous for its stunning architecture, always photographed against aquamarine skies, like this: It is a strangely public private institution. In 2011, Lisa Lapin, the Associate Vice-President for Communications, cautioned against the burgeoning of photography by visitors at Stanford: "The Main Quad is not a public park", she said ( It may not be a park, but it is a very public space, overflowing with busloads of tourists every single day of the year; teeming with potential applicants and their parents; and spotted with students and employees going about their business.

My Text Technologies group was taken on a tour by one of our own students: a meta-textual experience. The tour made apparent the highlights considered appropriate for visitors: the age and tradition of the institution; the sandstone and red tile, reminiscent of Californian mission architecture; the non-denominational Memorial Church at the core of the original campus, surrounded by the vast, unfilled (but not unpeopled) space of the Main Quad:

As one of our group pointed out, no human eye can take in the entire vista of the Quad at once: it takes more than one look, emphasizing its size, its scale, and the wealth of the institution. It is particularly about wealth, because this is predominantly empty space: so much space we own! Large circles of plants serve to maintain traffic flow, but do not interrupt the panorama. Fan palm trees visually echo the cross at the apex of the church and repeat the theme of the main approach to the university down Palm Drive.

Like the palm-strewn triumphant journey into Jerusalem, the visitor approaching campus sees before them the palms, the gates, the church, the Stanford-owned hills behind: the whole vista of this public, yet private place.

Wth its oddly catholic architecture, peculiarly Californian, but deliberately traditional, national and authoritative (Richardsonian Romanesque), Stanford is simultaneously local and international, medieval and modern. It is at once monastic and ascetic, a bastion of learning, redolent of privilege and prestige, yet open to a world that enters through the gateless gatehouses and gazes at the buildings' symmetry, the declaration of presence and belonging.


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