A Public Artwork by GSD Students Embraces Enclosure

Near the south entrance to the Radcliffe Yard, a structure of fir beams clad in grey translucent polycarbonate defines an intimate public space. A gently curving U-shape enclosure emerges from a wall, forming an entrance and defining an exterior. Light filtered through the smoky plastic takes on a sepia tone, giving the interior an ambient quality distinct from that of the yard outside. The space feels quiet even as it opens onto the well-trafficked Radcliffe gardens.

A public art installation that features on straight wall made of wood beams and plastic sheeting and a second curving wall intersecting it.
Curry J. Hackett and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar, “HOLD”, Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden, Radcliffe Yard. Photo: Mac Daniel.

Both a site for gathering and a space of partial seclusion, HOLD is a public artwork by Curry J. Hackett (MAUD ’24) and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar (MArch II ’24, MDes ’24). Exploring “the complex relationship Black communities have had with enclosure,” according to a text panel near the work, HOLD was realized through the Radcliffe Institute Public Art Competition.

Animated by a tension between open and confined space, the work developed from a historical understanding of “the ways that Black folks have been restricted and then the ways that they have subverted that restriction in an effort to find community and joy for themselves,” said Soomar in an interview.

As both designers observed, the curving form of the structure can suggest an embrace even as it pointedly evokes the hold of a ship used for transporting enslaved people. As Hackett said, the work is “an opportunity to put joyful moments of Black gathering in context with harder, more difficult, more complicated and darker histories where Black bodies have been contained.” Hackett and Soomar were developing the project when the University released the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report, which details the University’s financial ties to the slave trade and exploitation of enslaved people.

A digital rendering of a public artwork showing a structure of one curved wall intersecting with a straight wall. The structure appears over a mathematical grid. Black people of different ages perform daily activities around the structure.
A rendering of “HOLD” by Curry J. Hackett and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar.

“We’re offering this as a space for communities across Harvard’s campus to find fellowship with one another,” Soomar said, emphasizing an intention to welcome communities that have been historically marginalized at Harvard. The two designers found that extending this invitation to gather involved creating an area that was partially closed off. This dynamic is underscored by the obscured views through the translucent polycarbonate. HOLD “plays with the visibility of Black bodies gathering in the public space,” according to Hackett.

The work responds to subtle architectural cues in its surroundings, especially the U-shapes repeated in the dormers and doors of Radcliffe buildings. There is a give-and-take to this relationship as HOLD also transforms the broader environment. Augmenting the physical structure, Hackett and Soomar have curated a program of soundscapes that play daily at dusk. Respective audio pieces by Hackett and Soomar will inaugurate a series that extends through the year and include contributions from other designers, artists, and musicians. More than a sculpture or a work of architecture, HOLD was conceived as a platform for collaboration.

Hackett is a transdisciplinary designer who has created public artworks and design installations in Washington, D.C., and New York with his studio Wayside. He and Soomar were aware of each other’s practices prior to meeting at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Plans for HOLD emerged from their discussions of shared cultural traditions recognizable in both the Southern United States, where Hackett is from, and Caribbean nations like Soomar’s home country of Trinidad and Tobago.

Two men stand in front of a curving wall made of wood and plastic.
Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar MArch II ’24, MDes ’24 (L) and Curry J. Hackett MAUD ’24 (R). Photo: Courtesy Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

One early touchstone for the piece was the antebellum tradition of the hush harbor. Typically located on the periphery of plantations, hush harbors were secluded spaces where enslaved people would gather for religious worship, spiritual music, and dance. With roots in African traditions, these practices were subversive expressions of agency.

Hackett and Soomar noted that hush harbors offer key precedents for the modes of worship distinctive to Black churches. As much as the U-shape recurs around Radcliffe buildings, Soomar observed that similar forms are evident on Boston’s African Meeting House, among the oldest Black church buildings in America. In addition to the curated soundscapes, HOLD includes chime sounds at set intervals, including at 11 AM every Sunday, the traditional time for church.

As an architect, Soomar approached the project through the study of cultural practices that have defined Black spaces. The distinctive shape of HOLD developed in part through a study of gatherings, including those depicted in Carrie Mae Weems’s “Kitchen Table Series” of photographs centered on Black domesticity.  For Soomar, bell hooks’s writings on “architecture as a cultural practice” provided an essential intellectual foundation for his work on HOLD. “Black folks equated freedom with the passage into a life where they would have the right to exercise control over space on their own behalf,” hooks writes in a passage that Soomar shared, “where they would imagine, design, and create spaces that would respond to the needs of their lives, their communities, their families.”

A detail view of a public artwork made of wood beams and plastic sheets. An entrance is formed as one curved wall intersects with one straight one.
Curry J. Hackett and Gabriel Jean-Paul Soomar, “HOLD”, Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden, Radcliffe Yard. Photo: Photo: Mac Daniel.

Grounded in joy while reflecting on a history of despair, HOLD confronts the history of its site while retaining a highly personal address. “The whole thing is responding to the scale of the human body,” said Hackett. The first soundscapes playing at dusk reflect the stories of HOLD’s creators. Hackett’s work is an abstract interpretation of a baptism in a river, inspired by his own family’s history. Soomar’s work relates to his own experience with and research on Carnival traditions. In this sense, HOLD is a public work embedded with deep personal resonance.