In Defense of… Revson Plaza

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Bwog’s latest Defense project is of an architectural persuasion: Revson Plaza and its sculptures. Claire Sabel bravely takes on the task.

For some, Revson Plaza, the elevated walkway over Amsterdam connecting SIPA, EC, and the Law School to the rest of the campus does not sit comfortably among the rest of the Morningside architecture. There are those that feel it is ‘ugly’ or ‘stupid’ or even both. Ought we to take these claims seriously?

First and foremost, consider Revson Plaza’s location. Regardless of ornamentation, the benefits of its orientation to the rest of the campus can hardly be denied. Elevated above Amsterdam, it provides pedestrians with a safe crossing over the busy street, so notoriously dangerous as to inspire Balanchine’s 1936 ballet, “Slaughter on 10th Avenue.” Not only does the Plaza let you avoid choosing whether to wait fretfully for the light to change or to break the law (thereby risking death), but it goes so far as to complement your safe stroll with a luscious lawn and surrounding shrubbery.

It is also nearly impossible to pass through this pedestrian traffic haven without noticing the three bronze sculptures that punctuate the scene.


The first and arguably most-noticed is Henry Moore’s “Three-Way Piece: Points,” usually referred to as the Tooth.  The piece’s smooth, undulating surfaces contrast the hefty linearity of SIPA and Jerome Green Hall, and are entirely alien to McKim, Mead & White’s neo-classical structures on the campus below.  Constantly changing its position and adapting to its surroundings, the piece reminds us to look past the beaux-arts façade of Columbia toward something totally unique and modern.

Kees Varkade’s “Tightrope Walker”, the men stacked atop one another on the north side of the bridge, was commissioned to honor General William J. Donovan, College class of 1905 and Law School class of 1908.  Donovan is often credited as the “father of the modern American intelligence service,” and the sculpture does a fine job of representing what a fine line such services tread: while it is certainly cautionary, the message of the two acrobats is largely one of trust and companionship, and it encourages relationships to develop in its shadow.

Finally, there is David Bakalar’s “Life Force”—a tube-like structure protruding from the grassy lawn that is, in fact, a representation of an eye.  By far the most playful of the three sculptures, the artist claims that it represents “the birth force, the death force, the competitive force, and the nurturant force.”  Regardless of whether the piece actually forces one to consider these things, it undoubtedly accentuates one’s privileged place above the street as a member of the Columbia community.  The sculpture ultimately asks you to look critically, to closely examine your surroundings, and to constantly reevaluate the value of place, keeping whatever resonates with you and dismissing what you care to dismiss.

Revson Plaza has many advantages for the casual stroller and the art critic. But for everyone in between, it is something thought provoking and stimulating.  If you really hate the art, you can still walk faster to get where you’re going; if you admire it, you can take time out of your busy day to sit down and ponder, without having to trek across town to Museum Mile.  And if you really couldn’t care less, at least you didn’t have to brave more than one flight of steps.

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  1. Curious

    What about that giant hunk of steel mounted on the law school façade?

  2. represents

    man's attempt to tame nature by law

  3. Does  

    anyone really think that this plaza is ugly? Is Bwog running out of things to defend? Is our school becoming more and more perfect as a result?

  4. life force  

    is the best sculpture on columbia's campus, hands down.

  5. hmmm...  

    I'm pretty sure the thing on law is actually called Two Men Sodomizing a Horse. Or at least, so I've been told.

  6. amsterdam plot  

    fuck the grass! that area has a lot of potential as a garden... mmmmmmmmm food!!!!!!

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