Campus & Community

Office, ours

7 min read

Professors’ quarters, their offices, are sanctuary spaces, places of intellectual inspiration, rooms for academic exchange. Lined with books, decorated with objects and awards, speckled with family photos and mementos from foreign travel, the offices are always home to a computer — the connection to everything not housed within the four walls.

The offices at Harvard are as varied as the professors who inhabit them. Visit offices in Wadsworth House, the second-oldest building on campus, which served as headquarters for General George Washington in 1775, or those on the top floor of the modernist Carpenter Center, the architect Le Corbusier’s sole building in North America.

Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, holds court in Wadsworth House. His office is lined with books, many of them from the 18th century, and contains such personal mementos as a Fenway Park baseball and bits from the Berlin Wall, which he watched fall in 1989. “I am just happy in a room that evokes the past,” he said.

Donner Professor of Science Cumrun Vafa described his corner office in Jefferson Hall as “home within the University for me.” Blackboards line the walls of most offices within the Physics Department. “Blackboards represent collaboration, research, and freedom of thinking, discussion, and openness. That’s the aspect of scientific work that I think is crucial for research,” said Vafa.

The spaces are utilized in various ways throughout each day. They serve as contemplative places for reading, writing, and deliberating, and at times, as places to socialize with students and fellow academics. Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology Richard W. Wrangham said of his fifth-floor office atop the Peabody Museum, “It’s nice to be secluded as well as part of the outer world.”

In a way, each office evokes its owner. Looking around his space filled with books, papers, and objects from a lifetime of fieldwork, Wrangham joked, “I would like to feel that it represents me. It probably does. So be kind as you photograph it.”

Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, has his office in Wadsworth House, the second-oldest building on campus and the headquarters of General George Washington in 1775. A print of the Battle of the Nile hangs on the wall and a lion, fashioned after the New York Public Library’s Patience and Fortitude, serves as a windowsill bookend.
Books, many of them from the 18th century, line the walls of Professor Robert Darnton’s office — even though the computer at his desk hooks him up to the whole library system. “Everything I deal with these days is about the digital future. So in a strange way, this time capsule is one that is hurtling me into the future. When I look around I see comforting signs from the past, but they are reminders of the importance of the future.”
“I was in Berlin when [the Berlin Wall] fell, and I wrote a book about it,” Professor Robert Darnton says about pieces of concrete and a photo in his office. “And my daughter was there. It shows a little photograph, and she’s in the photograph with a mass of people on November 10, 1989.”
In Warren House, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Maria Tatar resides in a cheerful, yellow office decorated with colorful posters, including a print of the tuxedoed self-portrait by Max Beckmann from the Sackler Museum collection.
Picture books, mystery stories, and classic novels are piled together on Professor Maria Tatar’s desk — not an unexpected sight in the office of a scholar of modern German culture, folklore, and children’s literature.
Warren House was used briefly as a station on the Underground Railroad. “I feel humbled by the beauty of the space and the history of the building,” says Professor Maria Tatar.
The office of Giuliana Bruno, professor of visual and environmental studies, sits on the top floor of the Carpenter Center, the only building modernist architect Le Corbusier designed in North America.
Professor Giuliana Bruno’s space is sparsely decorated with modernist furniture and shelving that matches the materials used to build the Carpenter Center.
The office of Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology, is on the ninth floor of William James Hall. Pinker describes his visual taste as “contemporary — not oak and Oriental rugs.” His wall, built from glass blocks, resembles scans of the human brain.
Books encircle Professor Steven Pinker’s space. He shares, “Even though I have a Kindle and an iPad, my rate of book acquisition has not slowed down — bleached wood pulp is still an excellent technology for many purposes.”
The tower of Memorial Hall is reflected in the trophies, honorary paraphernalia, and photographs that hang on a wall in Professor Steven Pinker’s office. Among the images, Pinker is shown with Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, James Watson, and Ernst Mayr — a who’s who in biology and the social sciences.
Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Susan Mango’s office is kept in the Biological Laboratories. Her desk, scattered with papers, looks out on the volleyball court nestled in the building’s courtyard.
Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, keeps an office in the heart of Widener Library. “I’d describe it as both a workspace and a sanctuary. I adore that it is in the library … I’m sitting in the middle of one of the greatest libraries in the world. It’s about as good as it gets.”
Professor Stephen Greenblatt says of his library nook, “A place that is devoted, dedicated to the thing that is a serious part of my life, it seems absolutely essential to me.” Does the space represent him well? “I suppose in some sense, certainly in its disorderliness, I suppose it does, I’m sorry to say.”
Recalling his earliest days in his office, Professor Stephen Greenblatt says, “What I thought was that, ‘I will finally have space for all my books,’ and the truth is I don’t. I must keep culling them.”
Mementos from Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s travels to Laos, Bali, Italy, Turkey, China, and France are scattered around his office. A pair of hands from Oaxaca, Mexico, is among the collected objects.
Donner Professor of Science Cumrun Vafa occupies a sunlight corner office in Jefferson Hall. The space contains many personal touches, including this photograph of his wife. The image was taken when they were both graduate students at Princeton, he studying physics and she engineering. They met in a Persian poetry class.
A poem by Hafiz, the Iranian poet whose work is famous for its double meanings, decorates Cumrun Vafa’s wall with a verse that describes the perseverance to reach desired goals — the professor’s research philosophy. The verse reads, “Even after I die, if you open my grave, even after death you will see this fire, which is my driving force, still burning from within my heart.”
Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology Richard Wrangham’s office is located on the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum. A framed replica of the hand of the famous Australopithecus afarensis Lucy hangs on the wall; it was given to him by Donald Johanson, who discovered her 3.2 million-year-old bones in Ethiopia. Alongside is a spear from Uganda.
Describing his office, Professor Richard Wrangham says, “I see a collection of materials from fieldwork going back 40 years. There is a little bit of family stuff. I see things from half a dozen different countries representing all sorts of different interests, from bee honey that is eaten by chimpanzees to fake Oldowan tools to photographs of apes from around the world. … It’s such a comfortable place. I’m very happy to come weekends and after hours. It’s such an easy place to have access to and an aesthetically pleasing place as well.”