Silicon Valley and Stanford's Art
It’s 9:30 on a balmy night, and I’m standing amid 20 looming, glimmering statues sculpted by Auguste Rodin. But I’m not in Paris—I happen to be on the Stanford campus, home to more Rodin bronzes than anywhere else outside the City of Light.
It might seem odd that a place nicknamed “the Farm” (thanks to its roots as railroad baron Leland Stanford’s stock farm) would boast such a fine crop of art. But the university’s Cantor Arts Center has a world-class collection of more than 70 outdoor sculptures. Architecture buffs will find plenty to engage them here as well, from beaux arts to Frank Lloyd Wright. Add in the lush grounds, with more than 43,000 trees, and you’ll find that this expanse of green is the perfect antidote to Silicon Valley’s infamous cube farms.
Earlier in the day, I’d visited the Cantor’s newly expanded indoor Rodin galleries, which are spacious enough to enable the display of the university’s 200-plus Rodin works en masse (and there’s plenty of mass!) for the first time. The monumental Thinker dominates a soaring circular space, while smaller figures, busts, astonishingly expressive disembodied hands and studies for larger pieces demonstrate the breadth of the sculptor’s genius.
During a lively tour, docent Gayle Brugler revealed that Rodin preferred to exhibit his statues by candlelight. So now I’ve come back to see how these outdoor works look at night, illuminated much as they were in the artist’s studio (or, in this case, by a special in-ground lighting system). “Rodin was always thinking in lumps and holes,” Brugler said, “reflecting light and not reflecting light in his sculptures.” The dramatic setting illustrates her point. It seems strangely akin to the binary ones and zeroes being sculpted all across campus in buildings named for Hewlett, Packard and Gates.
I started my Stanford visit with a bird’s-eye glimpse of campus from the 250-foot-high viewing platform on art deco Hoover Tower. Stanford’s older buildings are a sea of red-tiled roofs, with the waters of the bay shimmering in the distance. A student guide pointed out the new nanotechnology lab that’s under construction and a recently completed “green” building funded by alum and Yahoo! Cofounder Jerry Yang. (Building nomenclature isn’t all about the big-ticket alumni, though— there’s also a pair of modular structures dubbed Bambi and Godzilla.)
Back on the ground, I strolled the graceful, arched arcades of the original, late-19th-century buildings crafted from yellow sandstone in a Romanesque-meets–California Mission style. Stanford’s layout feels verdant and harmonious, perhaps due to planning by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same landscape architect who created New York’s Central Park. Armed with a map, I searched for sculptures by Calder, Miró, Moore and Maya Lin, scattered around campus like treasures. My favorite was a sinuous, 128-ton stone wall by Andy Goldsworthy. Lurking in a trench, it evokes a slumbering dragon. Along the way, I traveled shaded paths edged by vivid blue agapanthus and fuchsia oleanders, but the most spectacular display of color I encountered was in the mosaics of Memorial Church, facing the main quad. Italian artists used 20,000 shades of tile to create interior and exterior murals, including 34 hues of pink in the cheeks of the four angels who guard the church’s dome.
The 8,180-acre expanse of Stanford is so vast—the largest contiguous university campus in the U.S., sprawling over two zip codes—that it’s a challenge to see everything on foot. But you can always hop a golf-cart tour (reserve in advance) to discover the more far-flung sights. The tour is customized, so you might opt to visit the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, with 40 mystical works carved onsite by the artists, or Leland Stanford’s Red Barn and Stock Farm, where Eadweard Muybridge made his pioneering photographs of horses in motion.
But I was more interested in one of Stanford’s hidden delights, a 1937 Frank Lloyd Wright–designed home built for the family of a professor who later deeded it to the university. Reopened this fall after several months of renovations, Hanna House (nicknamed the Honeycomb House) was a seminal structure for Wright. He adopted a hexagonal pattern as his motif, leaving no 90-degree corners. “It made the carpenters crazy,” confided my guide, Julie Cain. The architect designed around the ancient valley oaks embracing the hilltop home. “You feel this emotional connection to the environment, and you don’t know why—but Wright knows why,” Cain said, pointing out how the exterior flows into the interior through intricate walls of windows.
From the pattern in the floor to a towering skylight in the kitchen (or the “laboratory,” as Wright called it) to custom-designed furniture, the architect’s “honeycombs” are everywhere. But the temperamental talent didn’t always get his way—two fireplaces were added in an extensive Wright-designed 1957 remodel, against Wright’s original wishes. A determined Jean Hanna hopped in her car and drove alone to Arizona, convincing Wright to give her what she wanted.
After my long day of exploring, what I wanted was a relaxing dinner. Continuing with the art and architecture theme, I headed down spectacular Palm Drive, flanked with 166 Canary Island date palms, and dropped by a building designed by one of Wright’s contemporaries, Julia Morgan, who also created Hearst Castle. The current home of MacArthur Park—a favorite dining spot for visiting Stanford parents, with an airy white interior that features an open, peaked ceiling and double fireplaces—once provided hospitality for World War I soldiers. Much like at Hanna House, something about the space just feels good for the soul.
Fortified with grilled baby artichokes and barbecued ribs, I headed back to commune with the Rodins. As I stood alone, contemplating his masterwork, The Gates of Hell, eerie in the evening’s shadowy stillness, a dozen inline skaters glided past on nearby Roth Way. My frisson of fear transformed into a smile. Were the sculptor alive today, I don’t doubt that he’d add a crouched, muscled skater to his remarkable oeuvre.
GAYLE KECK is a Lowell Thomas Award–winning travel writer who lives in San Francisco.