An Urban Sunset

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From an advertisement in a magazine called Art in Advertising, 1894.

A Migration

The site has changed to a new format, as you can see if you’ve been here before. The main reason for the change is to eliminate, or nearly eliminate, the problems that have often made the site inaccessible in the past.

This site lives on free server space, and one can hardly complain about the price. But the database connection, which is necessary to run WordPress, has always been slow and unreliable. As WordPress grows in capability, the creaky servers struggle more and more under the weight of it, and visitors see more and more errors.

Moving to Flatpress, which does not require a database, will make the site load almost instantly. All the articles have been transferred, with their original publication dates noted, and comments that had been made on the original site printed at the end of each article.

The City

Published on 12/16/2012

“But to resume our old theme of scholars and their whereabout,” said the Baron, with an unusual glow, caught no doubt from the golden sunshine, imprisoned, like the student Anselmus, in the glass bottle; “where should the scholar live? In solitude or in society? In the green stillness of the country, where he can hear the heart of nature beat, or in the dark, gray city, where he can hear and feel the throbbing heart of man? I will make answer for him, and say, in the dark, gray city. Oh, they do greatly err, who think, that the stars are all the poetry which cities have; and therefore that the poet’s only dwelling should be in sylvan solitudes, under the green roof of trees. Beautiful, no doubt, are all the forms of Nature, when transfigured by the miraculous power of poetry; hamlets and harvest-fields, and nut-brown waters, flowing ever under the forest, vast and shadowy, with all the sights and sounds of rural life. But after all, what are these but the decorations and painted scenery in the great theatre of human life? What are they but the coarse materials of the poet’s song? Glorious indeed is the world of God around us, but more glorious the world of God within us. There lies the Land of Song; there lies the poet’s native land. The river of life, that flows through streets tumultuous, bearing along so many gallant hearts, so many wrecks of humanity;–the many homes and households, each a little world in itself, revolving round its fireside, as a central sun; all forms of human joy and suffering, brought into that narrow compass;–and to be in this and be a part of this; acting, thinking, rejoicing, sorrowing, with his fellow-men;–such, such should be the poet’s life. If he would describe the world, he should live in the world. The mind of the scholar, also, if you would have it large and liberal, should come in contact with other minds. It is better that his armour should be somewhat bruised even by rude encounters, than hang forever rusting on the wall. Nor will his themes be few or trivial, because apparently shut in between the walls of houses, and having merely the decorations of street scenery. A ruined character is as picturesque as a ruined castle. There are dark abysses and yawning gulfs in the human heart, which can be rendered passable only by bridging them over with iron nerves and sinews, as Challey bridged the Savine in Switzerland, and Telford the sea between Anglesea and England, with chain bridges. These are the great themes of human thought; not green grass, and flowers, and moonshine. Besides, the mere external forms of Nature we make our own, and carry with us into the city, by the power of memory.”

——Longfellow, Hyperion.

The Purpose of Architecture

Published on 05/25/2011

Architects have their competing theories of architecture, and they have poured out rivers of ink trying to justify this or that as the purpose of their endeavors. But the ordinary citizen, without thinking about it, knows what the purpose of architecture is, and probably knows it better than an architect who has spent his life filling his head with arcane theories.

The purpose of architecture is to create useful spaces that people want to be in.

It’s not enough to make the space useful if people hate being in it. And it’s not enough to make people want to be in it if they can’t use it for its intended purpose.

But being attractive without being useful is probably better than being useful without being attractive. If people like a space, they’ll find a way to make it work. If people don’t like a space, they’ll stay away, even if it  seems to meet all their practical needs.

Architecture creates more than one kind of space. Interior spaces are the ones we usually think about. But architecture creates exterior spaces as well. A new building on a street makes it a different kind of street. Is it a street where people want to be, or is it a street they hurry through? The architect is as much responsible for the street his building sits on as he is for the space inside the building. If a new construction creates a long, blank wall that people instinctively avoid, the architect has effectively destroyed the street. Businesses on the other side of it will wither, and the street will exist only as a passage from one more desirable place to another.

Style is less important than scale in creating spaces people like. Architecture on a human scale is inherently more friendly than architecture on a titanic scale. Monumental architecture needs smaller subdivisions to make itself relatable: the arches in a Roman basilica, or the stilts in a Mies van der Rohe office building. Great slabs of concrete or stone put us off instead of welcoming us; remembering the human scale is the thing that makes architecture work.

These are all obvious ideas, but the enthusiasm of an all-encompassing theory of architecture can make an architect forget them. An architect needs to look at his plans and ask, “Will people want to be here?” Perhaps he should point to different spots on the blueprint at random: Will people want to be here, or here, or here? If he can always answer yes to that question, he’s done his job well.

Snow in the City

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Published on 02/25/2011

A quick and heavy snowfall has a strangely magical effect on the city. Our little blizzard in Pittsburgh the other day brought everything to a halt. The streetcars kept rolling, but most of the buses gave up, and there were abandoned cars here and there on major highways. And when everything stopped—when people gave up trying to be anywhere but where they were—then came the silence.

It’s very hard to describe in words, this surreal acoustical change that comes over the city when the snow is thick on the ground and still falling. But everyone who has heard it remembers it. The absence of the usual urban background noise is what you notice first. But there’s more than silence: the sounds you do hear seem to come from another world, or from inside your own mind. The usual reverberation from paved streets and brick walls is gone; the snow absorbs every sound, so every sound you hear comes directly from its source. Conversations from far away are impossibly distinct; no echoes muddy them up, and no constant hum of traffic obscures them. They’re as frighteningly clear as voices in your head.

The morning after a heavy snow is a sneak preview of that new heaven and new earth we’ve been promised. Every ugliness and imperfection is covered in flawless beauty, freed from every stain and blot. But the greatest miracle happens as the human population of the city wakes up and starts to dig out. Now you see neighbors being neighbors—the strong pitching in to help the weak. This is the life of the New Jerusalem. The old heaven and earth have passed away.

Of course, in a few days it all melts, and then we’re back where we started.