I attended the funeral of an old friend last weekend. He was 14 years my senior and we had been friends from when I was in my teens until I hit my mid thirties. He was a very significant religious leader in his faith, I became an unbeliever, and his knees and his heart didn’t allow him to enjoy our tennis matches as he once did.
His son was a bit of a Doogie Howser and so, despite the fact he was 5 or 6 years my junior we ended up at Brigham Young University together, and we became friends as well. He had always wanted to be, and has since become, an architect. I remember that on our first visit together to Salt Lake City he remarked that, to his surprise, the buildings were “Springfield sized”. His dad was from the same cohort as James Howard Kunstler and had spent his childhood and tweens in NYC and moved to the ‘burbs for high school but he always considered himself “from New York” and the disdain for anything urban that wasn’t Manhattan was palpable. His son inherited that attitude.
It’s a sort of irredentism of origin that people will often consider themselves “from” whatever place within the story of their upbringing best suits their preferred view of themselves. I do the same thing. My childhood home is in Springfield, but looks and “lives” more like a rural outpost; dirt road, well water, wood stove, septic tank and all! But I’m a city kid.
They, father and son, would both profess to be city kids as well, but both made decisions to live in ex-urbia more often than not. Until now. The father isn’t living anywhere anymore, and his son is living in Brooklyn and working for one of the most prestigious architectural firms in the world; très cool. We began to talk about the built environment and I started to share that I had a role in some of the decisions that were made regarding the integration of historic buildings into the fabric of the MGM resort…in the city where he spent all of his formative years.
As I mentioned the decision to include the façade of an old hotel, which had played host to both President Polk and Buchanan, in the design, he expressed that he was surprised that Springfield housed such a building…and that he really wasn’t interested. at all. in anything architectural Springfield had to offer.
I get it. Whether it’s H.H. Richardson, Moshe Safdie, McKim, Mead, and White, Gwathmey Siegel, Olmsted, or Eduardo Catalano, New York City likely has more, better, and thousands of others besides.
There’s something in me, however, which pulls in the opposite direction.
When I fell in love with the cities of Spain it was Jaén, Algeciras, and San Fernando, not Madrid, Sevilla, and Barcelona. My favorite Velázquez is Mercurio y Argos, not Las Meninas. There’s something about seeing the sublime in what others miss, or even disparage, that gives me so much more satisfaction than worshipping the already deified. As a matter of fact I would say that my later appreciation for Madrid grew out of mix of the vernacular which reminded me of the provincial cities and the classical which the capital has in such abundance.
As Thoreau remarked in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a thoughtful observer can see the depths of the Pacific in the smallest stream and the beauty of the grandest forest in the smallest patch of woods. The alternative makes Everest the only mountain, Don Quijote the only novel, Hamlet the only play, and Beethoven’s 5th the only symphony; what a sad and diminished world to live in.