Visitors to Lobby 7 Monday were surprised to find that a 60-by-60-foot field of wheat had "grown" overnight in MIT's most prominent entrance hall. The small-scale oasis--over 75,000 stalks of winter wheat shipped from Texas and "planted" in insulation panels--was a one-day art installation conceived, designed and produced over the past three months by graduate student Scott Raphael Schiamberg, a degree candidate in both architecture and urban studies and planning.
Entitled The Garden in the Machine, the project was inspired by Mr. Schiamberg's long-standing fascination with the influence of 'American pastoralism' and the evolution of American urban development, addressed in a course he took with Professor Leo Marx called "The Representation of Nature in America." Dr. Marx, professor emeritus in the Program in Science, Technology and Society, is author of the seminal book, The Machine in the Garden.
By creating the work at the heart of MIT, Mr. Schiamberg hoped to create "a symbolic representation of the American pastoral ideal, literally growing out of the world of urban technology." For many in the MIT community, it was a soothing refuge on a rainy Monday morning and a welcome diversion during a hectic week in the academic calendar.
"It's so serene and peaceful, almost like walking through a dream," said Celia Metcalf, director of Design Services, who was pleasantly startled to find the tall grasses greeting her as she arrived at work. "Everyone was standing around smiling," she said. "It's so unexpected, and so magical."
As part of the installation, four quotations by Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman depicting the American landscape as a sanitary, soothing and healing force were mounted and hung over each of the four entrances to the lobby. "Our attachment to the American pastoral ideal has evolved into something of a national legacy," explained Mr. Schiamberg, "as a way of addressing the inevitabilities of progress and as an antidote to the sometimes harsh effects of city life."
To assist with the 12-hour installation on Sunday night, Mr. Schiamberg-a native of Iowa who was raised in Michigan, and a baseball fan who played for MIT as an undergraduate-recruited numerous friends, including members of MIT's varsity baseball team. The work involved hand-placing the two-and-a-half-foot stalks of wheat into 70 four-by-eight-foot insulation panels and positioning the panels side by side on platforms on the floor of Lobby 7, leaving space for an eight-foot-wide pathway for foot traffic.
The project was funded in part by The Council for the Arts at MIT, Office of the President, Office of the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, the Department of Architecture and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 8, 1996.