Monday, February 26, 2007

What we think about buildings

Recently, the American Institute of Architects released the results of a poll of America's favorite structures. The Empire State Building comes in at number one, and others in the top twenty include the Golden Gate Bridge, Grand Central Terminal in New York, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. As I read the list, I thought both about my favorite buildings and about a recent concert I attended. The poll evidently was taken by showing images to respondents--but arguably, that's not how most of us experience architecture. Architecture is something that you experience with your entire self--not just your eyes. I became a student at Cornell the fall after the Johnson Museum (designed by IM Pei) opened--and, as a freshman, at first, I hated it. After walking past it, up Libe slope for two semesters, I came to love it. Ithaca has changeable weather, to say the least, and somehow the Johnson changed in every weather. Some days it loomed up out of the fog or snow, other days it was surrounded by fall leaves. The building became a part of me and my life at Cornell.

A few weeks ago I attended a concert at the Walton Theater. Walton's a small town near me, and the building, listed on the National Register, has served as performance space and movie house for generations of Waltonians. Last spring, I toured the building with two of the dedicated volunteers working to restore it--but just a few weeks later, the building, and much of Walton, were devastated by floods.

This concert, by Irish American musician Cathy Ryan, was the first since that flood. Volunteers, many of whom had damage to their own homes or businesses, had pulled together and cleaned out mud, replaced floors and theater seats, and brought the building back. It was a joyful occasion for the community. Cathy Ryan talked about how musicians can feel a sense of previous performers when they walk into a space. I think this sense of lives past--whether it's our own experiences or others--is what makes a favorite building.

Buildings' lives are created by those occupants and others who experience it inside and out. As I thought about the lively feel of this old but now new performance space, I wondered about why it's so hard for so many historic houses to convey this same spirit. Do we not chose to save the right places, just taking the house that someone is willing to give us? Or have somehow do we squeeze that feeling out of it in our eagerness to care for and interpret the place meeting professional standards? The best historic sites, to me, are the ones that somehow recapture that feeling--the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, or Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin for instance. Now that so many places are the same--will all our communities be saving all those Wal-Marts in future decades?--it's perhaps even more important that we pay attention to that spirit of place in all of our communities.

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