A collection of essays that I started back in college. I’m putting them together as an e-book. Will post more here.
The Novelty of Being There
A collection of essays on “sense of place” and the hidden beauties of the world around us
Frank Edgerton Martin
Have you ever wondered why so many American cities began to lose their pedestrian-scale charm about sixty years ago? Have you ever considered how much you might already know about building humane and lasting communities?
Many Americans have begun to ask these questions. We have begun to question the shared character of public space that we have lost in a time when we have so much wealth and technological prowess. This small book lays out some tools to revisit places where we live, to ask new questions of their character and future possibilities. Such a revisit to ordinary places can be surprisingly instructive because the most important places in our hometowns and cities are those that we rarely notice.
The most important places in our lives are those we take for granted. In fact, we have to forget about our favorite chair as we read it, stop noticing they city’s skyline as we work there, forget about the museum’s famous architecture as we are transported elsewhere by its works. In being taken for granted, our houses, apartment buildings, neighborhoods, offices and schools become the settings where we grow into maturity and pass our lives. In this silence lies their greatest beauty.
It is a rare moment when experience a “Novelty of Being There”—when we step outside ourselves to notice the regions we inhabit, when we pause to consider how lovely, or unusual, or ingenious their construction might be. And that’s how it should be. The aesthetic moment of seeing the sun emerge from a dark storm cloud over our town in the Adirondacks, the emotional thrill of coming home from college for the first time…these are times when we are both inside familiar places but also newly aware of them.
We see them anew and we sense their possibilities. We may see how they have formed us. We may even gain a flash of insight into how to steward and improve their planning and design. All of this can seem very novel and revealing. But we can’t always live in the stream of such revealing experiences.
Yet, if we never step outside our the daily routines of habitation, if we never notice the places where we live, we will come to have much lower expectations for what their public spaces, landscapes, and communities (however you define them) can become. We can argue that the nature of American life encourages us not be present and aware, to be lost in our thoughts, plugged into music, driving to the soccer game, listening to the idle chatter of celebrity life and sports as we commute, surfing the news.
For many years, educators and environmentalists have bemoaned children’s loss of free time and contact with nature. There is even now the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the sanitized world of structured childhood with lots of car time, sports leagues and college tutoring. But, our experiential deficits are actually much deeper. We’re not only isolated from “nature” (however you define that), we’re also oblivious to the built world of streets, stores, the design of our own homes, gardens, and public spaces.
Many Americans live in one new suburb that looks just like another; they feel safe and predictable…and that’s not such a bad thing. The blanket of middle class comforts that our society offers— utilities that work, relatively low food costs, gas that’s still pretty cheap compared with the rest of the world—have a calming, even soporific effect. Why notice the world around us when so rarely anything breaks down? Because we are so fortunate, we are so unaware of our material wealth and stability.
This book is not a rant against modern suburbs, in fact, we should explore them as quite varied and fascinating when you look into their histories—and we will discuss them later. Nor, should we assume that, with the growing gulf between rich and poor, soaring health care costs, and other strains, many Americans live stress-free lives. Rather, what I want to say is this:
That we limit our ability to design effective cities and regions because we fail to notice places that are humane and those that are not. We give away our power and wisdom to a myriad of development forces that we hardly understand.
Drifting into Oblivion
There are many ways to drift away from one’s home region…and it often doesn’t require geographic distance. Many of us “move away” from our home environments because we are given faulty, shallow “maps” or languages of expression. It’s not just the rental car map. It’s a lifelong barrage of jargon, representational modes, and fabricated desires that create a specialized array of languages of discussing cities, none of them very rich or transferable to people outside the target audience.
City planners use zoning maps with little reference to three dimensions, history, or ecology.
Home builders speak of their homes as “products.”
Regional governments call our cities “Municipal Urban Service Areas” or MUSAs. The services include sewers, water, streets. The “MUSA Line,” the point at which it’s really not cost-effective to build more sewers and water lines.
Architects create sharp isometric aerial views and bright fly-though animations that make new buildings into sculpture. Often, we have no idea what the buildings will even be made of…and neither do the architects! But they look good…at least while they’re still fictional.
These renderings and simulations have a propagandistic force. They set the range of questioning. They can persuade cities to build projects that future generations may regret. Such birds eye views and isometric renderings can look impressive. Their power is that often create a false sense of “being there”. They can distract us from how this future world will really look from the street—which is where we actually live given that we are not birds.
The Gateway Urban Renewal District in downtown Minneapolis tore out almost the entire 19th century commercial district to create a Corbusian future when people would live in the sky. Today, some of the buildings are historic in themselves as mid-century modern works. But they are significant as icons, as objects in urban space—but not as part of human-scaled and coherent urban fabric.
Such specialized words and pictures may help to discuss questions of quantity and economic value. But, they are not a language that everyone who grows up in a metropolis learns how to speak and understand. As esoteric dialects, they do not convey a genuine shared and evolving sense of regional distinctiveness. In fact, much of the vocabulary pervading commercial real estate, city planning, traffic engineering, and landscape architecture avoid the validity of personal experience at all. Emotion does not ground professional “practice” in the architectural marketplace. (Unless of course, as a tactic in marketing “product”).
So why are our cities and suburbs becoming so hot in the summer, polluted all year, antithetical to walking?
Why is a food coop near Lake Minnetonka (lovely on the inside and filled with organic produce) set in a strip mall with no trees and no sidewalks? Why do none of the communitarian-environmentalist staff seem to care?
Because we no longer even notice where we are. Because we have forgotten to talk about what makes places that matter. Because we are focused on the tasks of life at hand with little room to step away. Banality has been normalized.
Thus we are no longer really engaged with the physical regions we call home. We’re somewhere else, mostly inside buildings, inside our jobs, inside our cares, entertainments and responsibilities. We fled the city and the suburb long ago. We have become strangers.
Becoming Commonsense Stewards of Design
These essays explore how most Americans along with our design and building professions have become dangerously removed from commonsense observation of what works in building communities. Rather than planning for the long-term, we too often copy one another, tear-down historic buildings, and focus on object-based design at the building scale rather than the larger fabric of neighborhoods.
We over-emphasize how designed buildings and landscapes “look” rather than how they sound, or smell, or how they will age over time. We design with great visual rationality, yet we forget that familiar places of work and home work best when we forget them. Yet, with their silence, there must also be moments of discovery and reflection.
Sometimes they happen with the change of seasons, in the fleeting moments when the leaves turn bright, when the first snow arrives We notice once again long-familiar smells and crunching sounds while walking in the woods.
In Los Angeles, residents experience anew the feeling of dry heat and winds sweeping across the desert when the Santa Ana Winds return in autumn. Sometimes these winds can be stirring and sometimes they can create a sense of dread.
This book explores why noticing the world—why our “attentiveness to being there”—is essential to becoming better citizens and stewards of the built environment.
Learning how to “be-in-the-world” again (at least, occasionally) is one of the best tools that we have to return to the humane and sustainable architecture that existed in many American towns, main streets, and cities up until about 1950—before television, before the Internet, before the structured life of children.
My use here of the term “humane” here is just a means of asking the Big Question: what does relevant, nurturing and equitable community design really mean?
The British architect Christopher Alexander, author of several books about a return to the lessons of ordinary places, calls this idea, “the quality without a name.” It’s not an easy concept to talk about; and very hard to through statistical opinion or in purely visual terms. But know it when we see it; and we can point to places that make sense and those that do not.
That’s what children do before they know the names of things; they point. And often, when they can’t have that candy bar, they start to scream because that is another way of communicating. When it comes to understanding and talking about the built world of everyday life, we do not have to be architects or historians. We can use our personal experiences to point to places that have qualities that may be difficult to name but are clearly there, inviting and memorable.
There are countless examples when the discovery of the beauty of place appears in a moment. And we will visit a few of them in the essays to follow.
We can think of post cards as another way of pointing, a means to show off how we want our town or business to be seen by others. Like any kind of map, post card photography is the result of choices made. Elevated view points quite literally posit a “point of view.” But do they reflect the world in which we live?
This early color post card of a cemetery in Winona, Minnesota exemplifies how maps and photographs are often culturally-grounded and edited by choices.
It’s a striking view of Limestone entry gates, the sinuous gravel drives drawing the eye over the smooth lawns—and into the distant the Mississippi River bluffs. The view seems like a very accurate depiction of a natural and human landscapes. But it is not “objective”.
Consider the photographer’s elevated position. Like many renderings of urban renewal and new museum projects, most people will never experience the site this way. Secondly, notice how the photo is dividend in to three distinct parts: the foreground, middle ground, and background bluffs.
And yet …great cities and regions have always afforded moments and sites where we can step away to find our bearings in settings that are real. This view of Alma, Wisconsin and the Mississippi River is also elevated. Yet, this a place where one where one could actually go to see how the river town fits together.
Unlike an architectural rendering or staged post card, this photo is not a removed projection—but the documentation of its character from a special viewpoint. It’s a special visit to a viewpoint we don’t see everyday. But we can go there. In Alma, one can still climb up to this vista today.
Reflective moments happen by retunrning to such vistas or when we go away for a long-time and then come home again. Everything, for a moment, seems new again. Maybe a little different from our past memories. But a world that is very much—noticed.
This is the kind of momentary and revealing experience that we can seek anew.
Expanding our Range of Questions
Our sense of “beauty” and fashion changes over time. To ask new questions of where we live, we need seek out the origins of our current definitions of “good architecture,” “wealth and prosperity,” and “expertise” because they say a lot about who gets to speak out, whose experience is considered important, and the vast segments of Americans who are completely left out of the discussion about what they value, about how to build cities and towns for coming generations.
What matters for active citizens is not just the range of the questions we ask about the promise of our cities—but also, by default, the questions that are left out. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse coined the phrase, “the universe of discourse” for this system of socially-acceptable questions and valid answers. Why should this matter for architects, landscape architects, contractors and builders? Why should most of the rest of us who spend our lives in their productions care?
Language will continue to evolve. But there are instances when, as George Orwell argued in his famous essay, “The Politics of the English Language,” words can be changed or fluffed up to mislead us. For our purposes, the politics of words matters because we need a much broader universe of accepted discourse if we are going to rediscover, notice, and share lessons from ordinary places again.
Why is it acceptable to publish jargon-laden writing while it is not considered “academic” to write first-hand accounts of environmental or social experiences in peer-reviewed articles? One is considered scholarly and the other not. Yet, it is, as the philosopher Edmund Husserl argued, “a return to experience itself” that is needed if we are to appreciate the settings of everyday living.
In a graduate school research methods class, I had a professor who taught us the simple dictum: “Everything that exists can be measured; and if it can’t be measured, then it doesn’t exist.”
He was a social psychologist and I really liked him. His notions about the value of empirical and statistics-based research completely contradicted everything I had Iearned in at Vassar. It was kind of shocking. But I knew that his claim about measuring made sense if one were studying traffic counts on a highway.
Yet, if that highway happens to be the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas, an old route traveled by native peoples, early explorers, and pioneers seeking a better life— there are much broader questions to ask. It makes sense to listen to the travelers’ own stories through their sketches, memoirs, and journals. That requires a completely different sense of validity and form of measurement. No single approach to research and mapping is “correct”. We need many. We need richer maps of regions, old roads, campuses, and towns with many layers.
We can consider “environmental memoirs” as one of these layers in our personal appreciation and map of home. In looking to our own environmental history, it makes sense to consider our own origins, to look again at where we grew up and our journeys through childhood.
Here is how I began an environmental memoir my own:
I was born in 1958 at Abbott Hospital in downtown Minneapolis, a small old hospital now closed. Even though my Abbot roots make Minneapolis my native city, I did not grow up there. My hometown is actually a much larger place—the Twin Cities metropolitan area whose ever-growing girth encompasses the old twin downtowns and postwar suburbs, freeway office parks and surviving farms. Like many members of my generation and region, I grew up in “the suburbs”—in Minnetonka to be exact, a village ten miles west of Minneapolis, its Victorian neighborhoods and Abbot Hospital.
When I think of the places that I loved as a child—our woods on a windy afternoon, the Skyroom at the Dayton’s Department Store in downtown Minneapolis, my grandmother’s old house on Kenwood Parkway in town, I realize that these places and my tastes for them have stayed with me to this day. For a long time I felt ashamed of the fact that I was born and raised in Minnetonka Village and not a real city. But I am really not a child of Minnetonka either. When one is born a villager in a place like the Twin Cities, one grows up in a much larger chunk of space where cities and villages and farms are united by fate.
In the chapters to follow, I plan to share the landscape descriptions of fiction writers, American pioneers, essayists and others. Many of them will describe the Twin Cities, the place I know best.
Overall, I hope to share three broad ideas:
- That the way we usually talk about our cities and regions like my own often cheapens our sense of their possibilities as places.
- That the individual beauty of America’s metropolitan regions is best revealed in the most ordinary and simple moments, places, and events.
- That urban regions are beautiful when they help us to achieve our calling in life, when the help us to become whole and “united” ourselves.
A “calling” can mean many things, but it is a driving purpose—and we have completely forgotten how to talk about it. That is why my region—and probably yours—are becoming so bland.
Moments of Annunciation
In the pages to follow, when I speak of growing up in the Twin Cities region, I occasionally consider what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Meaning calls “moments of annunciation.” These are moments in one’s family’s life and episodes in the history of our home regions forge a lasting impact. In my own case many of these events—the building of a metropolitan park system… the raking out of a streambed— are actually quite heroic even though ordinary people made them happen. Mostly, they are just stories, but stories that are novel because the people within them happened to notice where they were.
Thinking about our environmental histories is a powerful antidote to the forces of contractor banality and star architects, indifferent zoning boards, and town councils that assume that new development is good development if it builds the tax base. Ultimately, returning to and learning from environmental experience can inspire us to ask new questions, to set higher standards, and see greater connections between our own small decisions and the local future. That’s why how we measure and make sense of our hometowns, woods, commercial districts, alleys and offices—matters.
Our own maps and environmental stories can instill within us passion to care for the land. But we have to tend these stories and pay heed to them. We have to slow down for a moment and pay attention to where we’ve lived and how we live today. This is part of the value of writing one’s environmental memoir, of trying to piece together how you came to care for the places that you do. Here is one small memory I have of our house and woods—and a moment of caring for a small stream. It came early on in my environmental memoir writing and enriched me with a new appreciation of my parents.
Set on the top of a hill, our house looked into a sea of arching elm trees at mid-level. But when you walked down the path that led within, these trees seemed huge. They swayed and made a collective roaring sound when the wind blew.
At the age of five, I developed an affection for a kind neighbor, Mrs. Waters, who lived on the other side of the woods. After phone calls with my mother, she would occasionally invite me over for milk and cookies. Such visits required an adventure north through the woods and thus a kind of “trade route” to the other side of uncharted territory.
These were my fist solo trips. There was a good path that led down a hill from our pond to a little stream and then back up again to the northern edge of the woods. Once out of the enormous canopy of trees, I walked through a meadow and then into neatly mowed suburban yards and cul-de-sacs.
I came to know the route quite well; and through it, the immense woods began to gain landmarks. In particular, it was the little stream that I loved. Most of the summer, it was dry. But in spring, when the snow melted, the creek was filled to its banks with rushing waters. It was thrilling to see.
Late one fall, I remember being quite concerned that the piles of leaves in the stream bed would clog up the creek when the waters flowed in the spring. My parents and my little sister Laura came down there with me to rake the leaves out. I remember seeing my parents standing on the banks, talking happily, and reaching down into the little valley with the rakes.
When we took our rakes into the woods to clean out the stream bed, we carried out a simple ritual of caring for the Earth. Even though it was completely pointless from an ecological perspective, this small act, more than any other was, best expresses why I still care about the future of our woods, and Minnetonka, and our region today.
That is why raking out a dry streambed may be so important. After all, leaves decay, water flows downhill; nature has a way of cleaning up the messes that it makes. Surely, as grown-ups, my parents were aware of these simple, rational facts. “Practical” people do not rake out dry streambeds. But my parents wanted to encourage me to care for a place that I loved. Decades later, now that pretty much everything I try to read about architecture no longer makes much sense and my mental maps of our huge metropolis seem so devoid of interest, I ask myself…what could be more lovely?
copyright Frank Edgerton Martin, 2016