Gates of Harvard Yard, by Blair Kamin

Gates today, says Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, have a perception problem.

"The word itself is ambiguous," he says. "A gate can pen you in and keep you out."

That's certainly the case in Cambridge, Mass., where a series of 25 gates handsomely frame the perimeter of the Harvard campus. So what did their designers have in mind?

Kamin's new book, "Gates of Harvard Yard," looks at each of the 25, with photographs and essays covering their backstories and meaning.

Gates of Harvard Yard edited by Blair Kamin, published
by Princeton Architectural Press (2016)

Most of Harvard's gates were designed by McKim, Mead & White, beginning with Johnston Gate by Charles McKim in 1889. "McKim's design is brilliant - he creates a monumental gate that works with the Colonial fabric of the campus," Kamin says. "He goes to the brickyard of Boston for brick burned in a certain ways so they're green or black. It's elaborate - a symphony of design."

Johnston Gate, the main entrance to Harvard Yard; Image
credit: Ralph Lieberman

McKim's design turned the architectural tide back to the Georgian style from the Victorian, and became a Rosetta Stone of sorts, as other universities across the nation began to build their own gates on campus.

Kamin and his co-authors reached into the university's archives to research and reveal the human elements behind the Harvard gates in this 144-page book of essays. The story of each unlocks the history, tradition and beauty of the campus.

"The reason they're so powerful is that they are delicate and artistic central passages between ignorance and wisdom," he says. "That's why they're so resonant."

2016-04-28-1461874214-2055249-1857Gate_p133.jpgSketch of the three-arched Class of 1857 Gate; Image credit: Sketch by Roger Erickson

The class of 1857, whose members fought on both sides of the Civil War, funded a gate once the conflict was over. "There's a hymn to harmony between the two sides - of putting the quarrels of the past to rest," he says.

While a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2012-13, Kamin led a Wintersession class that sparked the new book's publication. When he arrived on campus, he'd taken note of each of the university's portals. "I was intrigued," he says. "They're beautiful and mysterious, with numbers and designs that are inscrutable."

The authors of the book are the nine students from his class - undergraduates mostly, with one student from the Graduate School of Design and one Boston resident. "Each wrote two essays," he says. "I wrote five and one of my co-teachers wrote two."

The main entrance to Harvard Yard, Johnston Gate. Image credit: Ralph Lieberman

Alas, many of Harvard's gates are suffering from more than a perception problem today. They're also locked and inaccessible, their landscape's in need of serious attention, and their vistas are blocked by buildings constructed after their installation. "Some were locked - unnecessarily in our view - and couldn't be experienced as meant to by McKim and others," he says. "We found photos of them open."

So here we have a book that's more than just a good read. Noting that the Harvard Club of Chicago recently raised $7,000 to renovate Johnston Gate, Kamin is optimistic for similar gestures elsewhere on campus. "It's not just an architectural exercise in words," he says. "It could lead to awareness and action as well."

In other words, it's time to open up all of Harvard's gates, restore their meaning and revel in their beauty.

For more, go here.

To hear Kamin speak about the book in Boston tonight, go here. And on the 29th, go here.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at, where portions of this post first appeared. He is the architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge, 2015).