Ever since I was old enough to read, my mother and I would go to the library together and come home with armfuls of books. Every library that I’ve been to has the same general structure: they have bookshelves, DVD stands, desks, computers, and chairs. You’re supposed to be quiet, unless you’re in an eating area (like some places in Bobst). Aside from these main features, they have nothing very unique about them. Since most people go to libraries to do their homework or read, I understand why they’re made this way. However, I think it might be exciting to have a place that celebrates knowledge in more ways than one.
The ancient Library of Alexandria is one of the most famous libraries in history. It is said to have “encompassed an area in which to walk, gardens, a large dining hall, a reading room, lecture halls, and meeting rooms. Together with the museum, which supported and housed a number of scholars, the library was clearly as much a cultural centre and intellectual meeting place as a repository and research resource” (Encyclopedia Britannica). I think that a place that allowed people to have intellectual discussions, share their ideas, as well as learn together, sounds perfect. The closest thing to this is a university; however, it still isn’t quite the same thing. Although a new library has been built in Alexandria, with museums, research centers, and a planetarium, it is still an exception from the regular ones that exist in most places.
When I think of why libraries aren’t cultural centers like the Library of Alexandria, my guess is that the Internet is partially to blame. Now anyone can have discussion forums online, and organizations like TED have given the public access into the findings and insights of various scholars. As much as I agree with the fact that the Internet holds an immense wealth of knowledge, there is something more inspiring and interesting about having a place where you can physically learn from others and immerse yourself in a stimulating environment. It would also be highly expensive to have libraries like this all throughout cities; however, certain aspects of them could be adopted.
To make libraries better places, rooms could be allotted where people can come and have discussions on certain topics. Researchers, professors, experts in different fields, and various other academics could be invited regularly to give talks, have debates, or teach a class. The library could also have spaces to express other interests, such as performance rooms or art galleries. It would also be refreshing to have outdoor spaces like gardens or courtyards that some libraries already do have, but they could be used as a place to meet people and have conversations about subjects instead of sitting quietly and doing work on a computer. Of course, there should be space for private reading and studying, but I think it could be a beneficial experience to have a sort of cultural or historic center along with it to promote the pursuit of knowledge. I am aware that many libraries do hold workshops or talks, but they’re usually planned events and not regular opportunities that are available to the public.
By combining multiple sources and disciplines of learning, libraries could be expanded to encompass different modes of learning. They don’t have to always be silent or serious places, but could in fact be places where people come to learn about and share other’s interests.
In the text The Lure of the Local, author Lucy Lippard talks about local places and their relationship to personal memories. She describes place as the “latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life”. After living around Union Square for over a year, I’ve developed a certain understanding of its spirit and culture. I believe that every place I’ve lived in has shaped me in some way, either consciously or subconsciously.
Union Square has been one of the places that I’ve developed a distinct memory for. Even though I try my best to avoid it because of its crowds, I can still describe it because of the prominence of its character. The periphery of the park is used as a place for people to sell kitschy I heart New York posters, or express themselves through street performances. There are also rows of low tables and stools lined up where you usually see people playing chess. When coming out of the subway station, you always find yourself right in the middle of some sort of display. There’s often a farmer’s market held in the Square, which adds to the crowd but helps produce a feeling of locality.
Union Square is also home to the fundraisers and the researchers. You’re often bombarded with people trying to get you to sign things or donate money to their organizations. A friend of mine and I both had a similar experience of being approached out of the blue by men who started asking us a bunch of questions like who we were, what we were studying, and why we were studying it. We assumed that they were either doing a social experiment or they were just being creepy and intrusive. However, the tables turned when I was supposed to do a group project and interview people for one of my classes. I joined the side of researchers who pop out of nowhere and try to ask you questions.
We ended up going into the park and talking to all sorts of people, from crack addicts to elderly couples taking a stroll. Talking to people made me realize what a huge variety of people hang out in Union Square. Unlike a lot of neighborhoods, where people tend to conform to a kind of “type,” Union Square’s main feature was its diversity. It makes sense that people go here to sell things and observe others, because it provides a naturalistic and local environment that anyone can take part in.
An interesting notion that Barry Lopez brings up in his essay A Literature of Place, is how a place can give us a sort of relief from total solitude. “If you’re intimate with a place, a place with whose history you’re familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you’re there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.” Union Square is a place which establishes this “conversation” and is able to immediately absorb any new entity that comes along, because of its sheer variety of people and activities. At night it is completely transformed into a deserted, dark area, as if at rest and waiting for the people to flood it and give it life again the next day.
After living in New York for a while, nothing I come across on the street seems extremely out of the ordinary to me. I’ve passed all kinds of people: some holding signs about US government conspiracies, the guy in the diaper and high heels who dances around ringing a bell and holding a sign that says “Love Portal,” and the woman at the bus stop who carries a shoe on a dog leash. I’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing people do, say, and wear the most peculiar things that I don’t even notice them while walking anymore.
The New York subway is a place where I’m forced to once again open my eyes to the oddities and quirks of some of the people that make up the life of the city. Being compressed into the smallest subway car on a daily basis, I have no option but to people-watch: a phenomenon that can be humorous but also terrifying because of people’s unpredictability.
I feel like it’s always Halloween for someone on the New York subway. I’ve sat next to a man wearing a car seatbelt around himself, and listened to someone reading the Bible to her ferret. The worst kind of subway rider is the belligerent drunk, staggering around the car make loud comments at everyone. There’s also the occasional someone who won’t break eye contact with you, creating a certain thrill about whether you’re engaged in the blinking game or a stare off with a possible psychopath.
In E.B. White’s essay Here Is New York, he writes “many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the city’s tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale”. The subway is a place that brings them into contact with each other and allows for this source of excitement to be displayed. It is the lifeline of the city, carrying throngs of people around the city everyday and in this way incorporating itself into the system.
Subways also represent the diversity of the city in that people from all classes, cultures, and backgrounds are made to share this space. Actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, in the photo below are also frequently seen riding the subway. Part of the whole subway experience involves not knowing what is going to happen or who you’re going to see. I recently made a friend with an art teacher at Trinity School, who told me that he likes to draw people on the subway without their knowledge and then gives them the drawing for free. He was recently contacted on Facebook by a girl he drew many years ago, who is now living in Brazil and asked if he was single and if he’d like to see her again. He is now currently in Brazil.
I think the New York subway is unlike any other subway I’ve ever been on, making it a hallmark of the city itself. Part of experiencing New York involves riding the subway and seeing the vast spectrum of lifestyles that its people follow.
As an international student studying in an American university, and studying away in other places through the university, I think I’ve developed an understanding of the “placelessness” that Edward Relph describes. He talks about “the possibility of a placeless geography, lacking both diverse landscapes and significant places,” implying that we are “at present subjecting ourselves to the forces of placelessness and are losing our sense of place” (p 79).
In the past three years I’ve moved between four different places and lived in five different buildings. It all began during my freshman year in Florence, where I’d travel on the weekends with my friends and became kind of obsessed with going to new places. We were having a great time during our excursions and accumulated stories and memories that we love to recall on any occasion. However, coming to New York after living in Florence for a year was no easy feat. Our little bubble had burst, leaving everyone who’d spent their year together in a closely-knit group scattered across different parts of the city, more or less doing their own thing.
I hadn’t really thought about New York in great detail before coming to college but just assumed that living here would be exciting. Sophomore year was a hard time for me because I had to get reoriented within this new place, where I’d have to make new friends outside of the five or six ones from Florence who I continued to hang out with. I didn’t like how busy everyone was all the time, and how large most of the classes were as compared to the ones in Italy. It was only at the end of the year that I started adopting a routine, visiting different parts of the city, and making new friends.
I somehow thought it would be a good idea to study away again, assuming that it’d be just like Florence and I’d be a part of a small community again where I’d get to travel around Europe seeing new things. However, my experience studying away in Paris as an upperclassman was a completely different one from studying in Florence as a freshman. We had to live in apartments in the city, and only really knew the people in our classes instead of in the whole program. On top of that, I had to re-adjust to this new city again, speaking the language, learning the subway lines, and trying to make local friends.
It was in Paris when I realized that moving around so much can take a toll on you even though it may sound adventurous. I grew tired and disoriented from this “placelessness” and being in-between countries so often. Something I noticed was that I was constantly missing people: when I was in Florence I missed my family and friends back home, when I was in New York I missed the friends I made in Florence, most of whom I didn’t see anymore, when I was in Paris I missed my friends in New York, and now that I’m finally back in New York I miss the friends I made in Paris. I wish there was a way to just collect everybody I’ve met over this time and put them together in one place, rather than have them spread out in different parts of the world.
My mind often goes back and forth between the places I’ve lived in, recounting memories, both good and bad. I think that travelling can be addictive in that once you visit new places you just want to see all the other places that the world has to offer. But during this act of travel it is hard to have the permanence and stability that a sense of place offers.
“When buildings talk, it is never with a single voice. Buildings are choirs rather than soloists, they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord” – Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
The idea that buildings are created as representations of different eras or schools strikes me as fascinating. In Tom Wolfe’s book From Bauhaus to Our House, he talks about the emergence of the Bauhaus style of architecture as a post-war development away from the established bourgeoisie. “It was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to Epicurus’ Garden” (Wolfe p 36).
The architecture of the building therefore speaks volumes about history, culture, and society rather than being a general display of design and form. One building that particularly captures my attention is the General Electric Building, commonly known as 30 Rock. The first time I visited the building was to go to the top of it, the Observation Deck to admire the view of the city, and the second time round I went to visit my friend who was interning there. I have noticed that the inside of the building provides a lens to another style of architecture called Art Deco.
The Art Deco movement, like the Bauhaus movement, began after World War I but originated from France, unlike the latter which emerged from Germany. Both the Empire State Building and the Chrysler building were also built on this school of architecture and are probably the most striking buildings standing in New York today. What I noticed when I went inside the GE building was the high ceilings and the geometrical shapes everywhere. A large, crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling that seemed to originate from a series of smaller circles. Being a skyscraper, the building does not have the same visual appeal as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler building, but I found that its interior did it more justice.
After reading about Bauhaus architecture and its features, I find myself comparing it to the GE building and wondering why these two different schools arose during a similar time frame. I remember seeing angular, golden shapes ornamenting the sides of the elevators and marble floors with geometrical star shaped patterns on them. “The Art Deco decoration of the building follows the heroic and mythical themes, combined with praise of modernity and visualized in form of classical figures at work or gods and goddesses of specific virtues” (New York Architecture). On the other hand, Bauhaus came to be a take a more anti-decorative stance and focused mainly on simple, mechanical structures.
From the top of the Observation Deck, you get a panoramic view of the city in all its grandeur. This view made apparent the charisma, or power that the building held in that it placed you directly in the midst of the “concrete jungle”. The message it conveyed was clear: you were on top of the world. While the Bauhaus style had the proclivity towards the humble, and the working class, the Art Deco style had in a sense established a sense of empowerment and strength that was visible in its skyscrapers.
In his essay The Vernacular Landscape is on the Move…Again, J.B. Jackson discusses the concept of “the auto-vernacular landscape” (p 34). He puts forth the idea that many spaces are now designed to accommodate automobiles and hence become a part the daily environment. I think his argument is quite relevant, because it sheds light on the very presence of automobiles that have evolved into more than just vehicles and integrated themselves into the landscape.
As I write this post I can hear the sound of sirens and horns from my dorm window on the 9th floor. These sounds no longer bother me because as someone who has grown up living in the city I’ve become accustomed to always having some kind of background noise, even if it is at odd hours. Aside from the obvious disadvantages of traffic, pollution, accidents, and the general burden that comes from having automobiles and spaces for them, they do tend to play a role in the interaction between people and place.
Often times, it is the physical space that cars take up that shape or define a particular setting. In class we discussed how a row of parked cars on the street could shield a person on the sidewalk from the moving cars on the street. It’s interesting to notice how the landscape of cars both provides for people and is provided for by people. The existence of parking lots, gas stations, roads, highways etc. are all man-made spaces that exist for the sole purpose of housing the automobile.
Jackson particularly addresses the environment of the gas station, which can bring a sense of unity to passing strangers. He says he is “aware of a very definite sense of place in many of them and of a sense of fraternity that can develop in even the least slightly of roadside installations” (p 34). This phrase resonated with me because I remember spending a lot of time at the gas station by the NYU campus in Florence, which sold bus tickets in the small convenience store located by it. The buses would often take a while to come, and sometimes they wouldn’t show up at all which resulted in groups of students sitting by the side of the road or hanging out in the store by the gas station. Its presence was useful in that it created a situation where people were likely to strike up conversation in each other, unlike in NYU lounges or common areas where most students would feel awkward going up to others and starting a random conversation. The gas station therefore provides a conversation starter like “Do you know when the next bus is coming?” or for people driving through to help each other in case of an emergency or to get directions.
I feel as though the automobile landscape assists in creating and maintaining movement throughout a place, allowing it to be dynamic while also providing an additional setting for possible interactions. Although people like Robert Moses might get carried away trying to extend this environment onto an already functioning urban setting, it is still important to think about how reliant we are on the spaces we’ve created.
Last year I visited one of my close friends who lives in the north of Stamford, Connecticut. We drove up to her house on a wide, winding road completely surrounded by trees. I remember feeling as if I were in a forest, but catching a few glimpses of houses behind some foliage every now and then.
When we arrived at her house, I was struck by the high, brown walls that stood out in contrast to the low, white ones of her neighbors’ house that you could see behind more trees. Her backyard was basically the woods, with a small winding creek running through it. It wasn’t your typical suburb with cookie-cutter houses and monotonous order. I remember looking out of her room window at one point and seeing a fox walk by. She laughed at my shocked expression, reporting that this was completely normal.
I noticed that when we went to watch a movie, we took the car to the town instead of walking. I would have probably gotten lost if I had to walk through all those trees; a worry she didn’t have because she’d never attempted it. When we finally reached the town, I began to notice the archetypal characteristics of suburbia begin to emerge, as all the houses began to look the same, creating a mise en abyme effect though the street. The lawns were indistinguishable from each other, and even the space between each house was the same. At nighttime this looked almost ghostly, and I found myself feeling an urge to fill the gaps of space with people, light, and vivacity.
In his book The Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America, Anthony Flint claims, the “spread-out, drive-thru, car-dependent, newer-the-better suburbia- is the default setting for millions of Americans”. When thinking about how many people live and have grown up in these suburbs, I wonder what it must be like for them to move away and suddenly realize that the empty spaces that they’re so used to are usually filled and buzzing with life in big cities.
My friend had gone to boarding school when she was around 12, avoiding the scenario that James Howard Kunstler describes in The Geography of Nowhere: “There was so little for them to do in Northwood, and hardly any worthwhile destination reachable by bike or foot, for now all the surrounding territory was composed of similar one-dimensional housing developments punctuated at intervals by equally boring shopping plazas”. The suburbs, I feel, are built on the principle of uniformity rather than on aesthetics or design. This immediately removes the excitement that exists in wandering through a city- there is no sense of mystery, wonder or unpredictability.
The video below is a clip from the TV series Suburgatory, portraying an exaggerated view of stereotypical life in the suburbs.
In the second chapter of The Death and Life of American Cities, author Jane Jacobs highlights the importance of sidewalks in creating safety and dynamism in a city. She mentions how a successful city “is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing to it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city…” (p 66). Reading this reminded me of the streets of Paris, which are filled with examples of the surveillance that Jacobs believes is needed in streets.
During the 19th century, the French author and poet Charles Baudelaire wrote about a figure called “the flâneur;” a spectator, for whom it is an “immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite” (The Painter of Modern Life, p 9). Jane Jacobs talks about the need for the streets to be set up in order to allow observation from the kind of person that Baudelaire classified as the observer; someone who thrives in the streets of a city.
When you walk down the sidewalks of Paris, you’re walking past rows of people sitting in cafes. Almost all of these cafes have tables outside, facing the street, designed for the sole purpose of people watching. A friend of mine who has lived in Paris her whole life, told me that Parisians sometimes play the game of classifying the people going by, by their clothes or accents or walking speed. Jacobs affirms this in her book, stating, “large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity” (p 51). The presence of people, and the knowledge that they’re being watched, is what Jacobs argues helps make a street safe.
This thought leads me back to the time when I was volunteering at The American Library in Paris, which was away from the city center. As soon as I got off the bus I’d increase my pace and walk down the wide empty sidewalk as fast as I could to get there. On returning home, back to the lively streets and surrounding cafes, I’d feel much safer even though it was later at night.
Jacobs also mentions how in wealthy neighborhoods, street-watchers are hired for the safety of the residents. According to her, Park Avenue is so lacking in onlookers, that “if its rents were to slip below the point where they could support a plentiful hired neighborhood of doormen and elevator men, it would undoubtedly become a woefully dangerous street” (p 56). As a street is meant to facilitate movement, it is difficult to constantly have people around to watch each other in the absence of street-watchers. That is why most places are more dangerous at night as compared to in the day when they’re more crowded.
The presence of bars, stores, restaurants, and cafes are therefore important in determining the safety of a street. More importantly, though, it is the interactions and the comings and goings of different people that add character to a certain place. Jacobs describes this as “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole” (p 66).
I’ve always been interested in the idea of new places. It’s strange how when first arriving in an unfamiliar place, you see it very differently from how you do after being there a few weeks, or even days. You no longer get lost as much, but the novelty of the being in another environment begins to wear off.
In his novel Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman talks about a world without memory, where “many walk with maps, directing the map-holders from one arcade to the next in the city they have lived in all their lives, in the street they have traveled for years”. In a way, visiting a new place is exactly like the experience that Lightman describes; however, unlike the people who have lived in that place all their lives, we’ve never actually been there before. Having no memory of a place, therefore, compels us to interact with it and create new memories so that we are able to orient ourselves within a certain periphery.
Last year, my friends and I were invited for a party in someone’s apartment in Stuy Town. The cab dropped us outside the building complex and all we had to do was walk inside and find the right building. We found ourselves surrounded by the same tall, brown, block-shaped buildings and began reading the numbers in front of them. We circled around some trees, found ourselves back to the same blocks, tried new directions, but ended up confusing ourselves further. I called up my friend to ask him for directions which we failed to follow, since “turn right from the first square near the entrance and then keep going straight” meant nothing when there were a bunch of different squares and paths that were leading us into a labyrinth of more of the same buildings.
We even tried to use Google Maps to find our way to the right building, but it was cold, dark, and raining, so we ran out of patience. Eventually we just tried to trace our steps back to where we came from and then waited for a friend to come and get us. Everything looked so similar that we couldn’t create landmarks or figure out how to get out of that maze. We felt just as lost as those people in Lightman’s book, as we didn’t have and couldn’t create any spatial memories of the place.
Researchers have now found what seems to be a biological link to our understanding of places through their discovery of place cells and grid cells. David Redish, a neuroscientist that lent more insight into this finding, asserted that “grid cells form an internal positioning system, and place cells use that information along with other cues to create a sense of place. Together, they create a rich map”. Without a repeated exposure to the place, or any familiarity to it, it would then be difficult to create a sense of place without any input information going into the place cells. This would explain why we got so lost- and were unable to use cues in the environment to orient ourselves when everything around us looked the same.
I know that if I go back to Stuy Town a few times (hopefully in the daylight), I’d be able to find my way and eventually walk directly to any particular building without getting lost. After all, you don’t see a group of dazed residents strolling around, hoping to find their apartments soon. This feeling of being lost is temporary; thanks to the biological and mental processes that help us acclimatize to a new place. However, it might be helpful to leave a trail of breadcrumbs the next time you plan to visit a particularly confusing and unfamiliar neighborhood.
In Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City, he mentions numerous ways and techniques that individuals use in order to read a city and orient themselves. Various structures present throughout the urban landscape serve as landmarks that help people navigate and find their way from one place to another. By depending on the saliency of these structures and the number of them present, we are able to determine the success with which a city is built to be used by its residents.
In his first chapter, Lynch talks about how “each individual creates and bears his own image, but there seems to be substantial agreement among members of the same group”(p 7). One of these groups that is interesting to think of is age. The way I found my way around my house when I was 3 years old, and how I find my way around now at 21 years, is very different.
By the time that children learn to walk, they explore their surroundings from their point of view; which is very low down on the ground. They would therefore be exposed to more edges, such as stairs, walls, and chair legs. The photo on the left shows how perspectives change based on one’s distance from the ground. In this particular case, Audrey Hepburn would have to avoid the edges around her in order to cross the path of the room from under the table. Her experience would be significantly different from a person who is standing up and crossing the room. This suggests that a child’s system of navigation would involve a lot of crawling through paths.
As we get older, and taller, objects and shapes become more distinctive, and we’re able to distinguish between different paths based on more specific landmarks. When I was three years old, walking to my parents’ room would involve walking past the dining table (seeing its legs, and chair legs). Then I’d take a right, walk by the shoe stand, and arrive in their room. Now when I walk to my parents’ room, I walk past the dining table (seeing only the top of it), take a right, walk past the window (which is now at eye level), and then arrive in their room. In the first scenario, I was faced with much more mundane stimuli- the furniture legs, shoes, and walls. Now I don’t have anything in particular lining my path as I walk to my parents’ room.
It is important for us to understand Lynch’s concept of imageability:“the quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer” (p 9). While orienting ourselves, we are able to select certain images such as a bookstore or McDonald’s, to figure out where to turn from- unlike children, who are mainly exposed to the floor and various edges. We also become more familiar with nodes- being able to immediately spot a differentiated hub such as a street corner or a lively square filled with street performers. Now when I walk to class, I can easily pick and choose which avenue or street I want to walk down, based on the stores I like to walk by or a restaurant I want to eat at.
The city therefore, becomes more “readable” as we make personal associations with certain ways as opposed to others. These associations grow stronger once we’re old enough to perceive and create mental maps of our surroundings.