By Arman Kassam
“Stanford is always under construction,” a friend at the Markaz told me. I looked out across the two new patches of construction in White Plaza and realized that these spaces, dead during the day, suddenly come to life in the night. The piles of brick slowly turn into new street paths; the humongous claws roar and uproot land that once had benches I can remember sitting on with my parents when I first came to Stanford. I could remember how I ambitiously cut across the grass on the plaza to shorten my commute to Stanford by a couple seconds (do people really walk on the road?). It was almost kind of sad to see all of this change. However, I wasn’t just dwelling on my experiences. The buzz of machinery reminded me of two faraway destinations I had read about over winter break, Gobekli Tepe and Stonehenge.
When they were built thousands of years ago, the value of these ritual sites was not their structural permanence in the landscape, but rather their perpetual dynamism. The Stonehenge that we imagine today was not the Stonehenge of the past. Every generation of community members participated in a ritual construction of physical space that facilitated the cultural constructions of their social space. Youthhood, adulthood and clan duties were performed on the stage of monument building.
The construction sites near the Claw offer something similar. Of course, the first thing that pops into my mind when I see construction is the annoying disruption to my daily commute. But the second thing that comes to mind, and the thing that my friend may have been hinting at, is a collective belief that Stanford has the wealth to continue renovating their campus — a belief symbolized by that roaring machinery. The dynamism on campus lends itself to images of prestige and progress, reflectively affirming our shared understanding that Stanford is headed towards a future. Granted, this picture is not entirely rosy; construction sites reveal the hidden innards of campus, making our monolithic institution momentarily vulnerable.
It seems that there are two different types of symbolic systems on Stanford’s campus. There’s an order of street signs, above-ground architecture and roundabouts that indicate to us the Stanford that we physically navigate, as well as an order of spray-painted markings on the ground that indicate to construction workers where the veins and arteries of our hive run off to. I never actually take notice of this second order, but when the earth is opened up and construction materials are laid out, the infrastructure that underlies our world becomes suddenly gripping. These sites display a vulnerability of landscape, yes, but perhaps this vulnerability — this disruption — is the ultimate token of progress. By the horror of a torn-apart quad, we (the audience) are guided to imagine the prosperous and beautified campus that will come when the ritual is over. In terms of the never-ending propaganda for the institution, these construction sites aren’t so different from the ancient past.
This dynamism on Stanford’s campus is, in another way, not like the prehistoric examples I’ve given because of one, encircling detail: borders. You can walk up to the construction site, but you cannot traverse it. You can walk around its borders (like I’ve done to make this map), but you cannot physically penetrate them. All of a sudden, there’s a hole in the map — destinations that you cannot exist in. Unlike Gobekli Tepe or Stonehenge, the ritual construction of our shared spaces is outsourced to a professional class of construction workers. Their bodies can occupy those spaces, but what if a student’s body crosses that boundary? It’s awkward. It’s unusual. I spent a solid five minutes looking through those fences, and I already felt uncomfortable because I was worried that other people could see me looking and (gasp) outwardly acknowledging the site. I felt like simply stopping to look at the site was transgressing the border itself. The normal thing to do is to simply keep walking; this is all a controlled dynamism.
Borders definitely prevent one from crossing and participating in the physical construction, but perhaps more saliently, borders guide us into the new normal. The metal fences that encircle this construction site indicate to its ambulatory audience that we should walk around, to create different paths that slowly rebound into a new equilibrium. The fences are another type of sign that direct us on how to move. Language is on land, and we are well, well versed in speaking it. We are so well versed in speaking it that the construction site may be an annoying disruption when we first encounter it, but by the second and third times, it becomes part of the quotidian, a necessary obstacle of everyday life. We just walk around. Most of us probably don’t have time nor are petty enough to complain about this change in the landscape and the reconfiguration of our daily routes. After all, isn’t this whole thing temporary? Things are accepted as normal precisely because they seem temporary, but our reconfiguration of daily routes around the construction sites — I think — is much more complicated than that.
Ritual construction is not necessarily something that every member of a group needs to physically participate in for everyone to socially participate. We walk around these construction sites and experience new paths that, in turn, codify the change in landscape that Stanford, the institution, has initiated. We and the construction establish a harmony directed by borders, boundaries that do not prevent us from participating in the construction, but rather serve as a new medium to participate through. My point is that the controlled dynamism on our campus is both a product of the institution and us, the audience, whose new experiences of terrestrial order promptly turn into the “old” and “normal.” We are all participating in the ritual by embarking on innocuous new paths that really speak to an old, longstanding tradition of change. We talk to the land, and the land talks to us. And though we are not remaking the ruins of Gobekli Tepe or hoisting the megaliths of Stonehenge, we are deeply embroiled in a similar, collective ritual — a tradition that will never stop because it serves our culture of order. Stanford is always under construction.
Contact Arman Kassam at armank ‘at’ stanford.edu.