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Art coming out to play

SURROUNDED by the buildings of Killian Court on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, you feel like a very small person in the midst of a very well-planned universe. The lawn is proportioned into vast, un-New England-like spaces, and the dome overarching the Barker Engineering Library is based on the Pantheon in Rome. After this expansive visual statement, bringing together many facets of life to reinforce science and technology, it comes as no surprise that MIT has one of the best collections of outdoor art in New England.

Killian Court looks perfectly finished and complete in itself - until you pass by one of these sculptures and notice that it looks very like the leavings of a children's building game. This piece by Michael Heizer takes up a comparatively small part of the courtyard, yet it makes the viewer realize that the one thing left out of this universe is childhood - as if play is put in storage when an adult prepares for work. The reverse side of that belief is that the more complex the thoughts of a person are, the further that person is from having fun. The word ''serious'' is likely to be applied to cultural activities, but not to a group of people exchanging puns. But I'm not so sure there's such a great distance between fun and so-called ''serious'' activities. Sometimes the seeds of one are found in the other.

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Take puns, for instance. Alexander Calder's black metal stabile is one of the most popular modern sculptures on campus. People involved with MIT remark that this affection may stem not only from the fact that the sculpture has been around a while and has become almost a logo for the campus but also that it tickles the engineer's love of puns. For this sculpture, named ''The Big Sail,'' symbolically captures the wind coming through the tall Green Building behind it.

Much of art is bristling with what are, if not technically puns, at least branches on the same family tree. They make a play on two very different things that have similar appearance instead of similar sound. Such visual puns may not stimulate rollicking laughter, but they can make the viewer feel as if he or she has accidentally touched something enchanted.

Take the Heizer sculpture, ''Guennette,'' again. Closer up, the expanse of undecorated surfaces, compared with that of the buildings behind, looks not only monumental but primitive. There is a pun on time here. The buildings closest to the sculpture have elegant refinements and elaborations that suddenly seem to the viewer as if they were made later than these simple piles of elemental shapes, not the other way around. The artist has been known to talk about primitive and ancient echoes in the earth works he is well known for.

But not all the characteristics of this sculpture made from ancient Laurentian granite contribute to a feeling of age. The pieces are not roughened to show wear but are smoothly polished. Nor do they retain the basic masonry-like rectangularity of, say, Stonehenge. Details like these can be quite magical. Their very lack of fit points in a new direction. They can make what seems physically impossible happen - make the same limited, static characteristics appear to draw together into one well-furnished world (in this case, a primitive one) then into another with completely new furnishings. For me , the radical turnabout in perception occurred when the buildup of nonmasonry shapes brought to my mind a construction material in which circular or triangular shapes are not out of the ordinary - the pieces in modern children's stacking or building games.

Here, construction becomes a primal impulse to make something more complex out of even the simplest materials, even if it is balancing carefully proportioned segments of a circle on top of each other, or varying them by letting some slabs swing out into empty space, or even making puns out of their configurations. Especially in Killian Court, the symbolic heart of MIT, the building-game aspect of this sculpture has a special meaning. It suggests that some professions that require working with intricate systems may, for some of their practitioners, actually preserve the freshness of seeing certain things through a child's eyes.

To keep alive that first exhilaration of childhood discovery - say, when blocks or logs, which by themselves don't look capable of much, suddenly slide together just right and become a house - a person may look for things to work on that have ever-new angles capable of magically interlocking with and transforming the things around them. And, as with the puns, each twist and turn, no matter how important the ultimate purpose, has a little bit of play built in.

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