Monday, May 25, 2009

Landmarks and Longing

I thought up this title for a friend long ago and then regretted giving it away. It is especially perfect for a discussion about architecture and how it affects us. I am not sure when I first became interested in the field or in architectural history; I grew up in Manhattan so buildings have always been my natural landscape. Perhaps awareness developed because of the contrast between my native city and Israel, and especially Jerusalem, which I visited every summer as a child. In both places, wildly different from each other otherwise, there are layers of history to be detected in the scenery and in the memories which it evokes. This interest of mine remains an avocation and passion; I am wont to point out an interesting design detail or burst into impromptu sharing of history and trivia when walking the city with friends. A number of people have suggested that I become a tour guide and I think that it is a good idea.
Summers in the city I fed this passion in a few different ways, including volunteering at Belvedere Castle (the highest point in Central Park and where the park’s temperature is measured) and at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where I scoured through buildings documents doing research for what became the Ladies’ Mile historic district. Later on I would work in the building that had once been the headquarters of Simon and Schuster (and which until recently housed United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) complete with a little study on the mezzanine that was said to be where Teddy Roosevelt sat and wrote his memoirs. His reconstructed birthplace, a national historic site, is only a few blocks away. I took a class at the Metropolitan Museum with a member of the Commission and that led me to volunteering. That class was my formal introduction to the study of architecture. With class guest Elliot Willensky we analyzed the block of 82nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison, with the main entrance to the museum filling the view past the western end of the block.
My interests in museums dovetails here: Belvedere is an educational center and the staff there sent me to my first meeting of NYCMER, the NYC Museum Education Roundtable. Historic sites usually identify as museums and museums often make use of their buildings and especially their interior spaces to help shape their experiences and tell stories. One of my favorite features of the Metropolitan’s building complex is that there are glimpses in the current interior of what were formerly exterior elements. In college I took Modern Architecture with the legendary Vincent Scully while he raged against the proposed handicap access elevator to Cross-Campus Library, complaining that it would ruin the symmetry of the library approach. Walking to class one morning he tripped over some ice (it was a snowy winter), broke his leg and spent the rest of the semester in a wheel chair. He publicly acknowledged the importance of access over aesthetics, at least in certain cases. I also took Study of the City with Alexander Garvin and loved the complexity of urban planning and development but I ignored the call.
Anthony Tung left the Landmarks Commission and later wrote a book called Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis, with stories of urban centers that survive various kinds of disasters. It was published in the Fall of 2001 and I went to hear him give a presentation on it at the start of November at the Municipal Art Society. The audience was dominated by people in related fields such as architecture and urban planning; the feeling of loss weighed heavy in the air and made the room seem dark and stormy. It was still too raw to really feel that rebuilding was possible, but one story in particular stayed with me and gave me hope. Even though New York and Jerusalem are featured in the book, it was the tale of Warsaw during World War Two; it is the city where my father was located at the outset of that war. Local planners, there and in other European cities, took note of the destruction that war would bring and made plans for rebuilding afterwards. In Poland this activity was outlawed by the occupying forces, but engaged in nonetheless by professionals driven to see their city survive. In particular, architecture faculty at Warsaw Technical University preserved documentation, including photographs, of the cityscape to be used as reference in the future. Tung describes in detail the forces that marshaled post-war to recreate the city, mostly true to its historic form. I visited Warsaw a few years later and because I knew the story, but also because of my family’s history, it felt surreal. It was still majestic, if a bit too shiny still to be truly hundreds of years old. I have shared the story of these urban heroes often.
When I worked in the local bookstore, whose memory inspires longing as well, there was a pattern of people who would come in with a certain glazed look in their eyes, saying “I just read the best book in the world and I have to buy copies for everyone I know”. It was always Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a time-travel novel and quintessential romance with historic New York City. There are other novels that evoke similar feelings, but none with the same grandeur and satisfaction as this masterpiece, in which The Dakota, one of the crown jewels of the Upper West Side, serves as a crucial landmark. Beloved buildings appearing in the past and present serve as anchors.
The seeming solidity of buildings, cities and civilizations: they are signposts on which we hang so many messages about what we know, believe to be true and see as possible. They are examples of an artistic form that simultaneously contains past, present and future.
©2009 Leah Strigler


Lucy said...

Lovely thoughts. I think you would also like Winter's Tales, another love letter to NYC that uses its architecture as a character (especially Grand Central Station)/

chayaruchama said...

Two of my favorite people, conversing about that which is near and dear to the heart.

Like a wellspring for those who crave refreshment.

Ask Leah said...

Yes! Winter's Tale is also great - but in a bookstore on the Upper West Side the Dakota takes precedence...
and dear CR I think that for many architecture itself is such a wellspring. Also, the lovely waterfalls in Prospect Park that Lucy showed me yesterday.