Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Pictorial Aside: PLACES

Once I posted my blog, 2012 In Photographs, early Monday morning, I went to bed with the distinct feeling that some images were missing.  Sure enough, I had passed over the category of Places.  Thus I post this addendum as a way to tie up loose ends, complete my pictorial offerings from 2012, and get on with our new year.

However, since I only have thirteen more images to present, and since none of them were shot with the intention of being some ideal representation of “place,”  I will try to justify how 
each photograph embodies some concept of place.  There is no hierarchy in my ordering of these thirteen photographs.  For the sake of simplicity, I present them by their proximity to where I live in the south Bronx. 

Read my explanations of place, if you wish, or ignore the texts and simply enjoy these last few photographs, as you would have had I not forgotten to include them on Monday.

Bronx, New York, Yankee Stadium, Pre-Game lineup exchange

For Yankee fans, Yankee Stadium is the place.  For many others, it is simply another sports stadium. Yet, it claims a long history, and the team it represents is the most “storied” in professional baseball. 

This is the new Yankee Stadium.  The old Stadium (closed in 2008 and then razed) was just a bit to the east.   That first stadium was carved from the estate of William Waldorf Astor in 1921, and play began two years later.  It was “the home of Ruth” as well as of many other hall-of-famers, and the Yankees earned 26 of their 27 World Series titles while playing in that old stadium.

I suspect, even with some holdouts, most Yankee fans are happy to transfer that sense of place from the old stadium to this new one. That, certainly, seems to have been the intention of the architectural designers, Populous, who took pains to incorporate many features from the previous stadium in the new one and to pay homage to Yankee history on the walls of all the corridors.  Even the roof carries a cantilevered replica of the trademark frieze of the earlier park, with its series of segmental arches, each carrying 15 long perforations that connect the arches to the top edge-beam.

For those who would have preferred something new, and possibly less superficially connected to the old, they may take comfort in a different sort of history, related to the fact that the new stadium is built on 24 acres of Macombs Dam Park.   Leaving aside the obvious social stigma of a very rich, private, professional sports organization taking land away from public use--which is what the Yankees did in 2008--Macomb’s dam was an example of a dam built across the Harlem River by a 
private family of millers.  Riverside residents objected to this usurping of public property for private gain and, in 1838, rammed a barge through the dam to once again free river traffic for everyone.  Twenty years later, a toll-free bridge was built, further expanding public use of the area,  and then the public park was opened in 1899. 

 Thus, even if only historically, the new Yankee Stadium is the beneficiary of a much earlier public rebellion, and that park--Macombs Dam Park--has served the city well for over a century as a training ground for New York (and Bronx) athletes.  Let us hope that some of their spirit has taken residence in this new stadium.

Bronx, New York, New York Botanical Garden, founded 1891

The New York Botanical Garden, encompassing about 250 acres of Bronx Park, was founded in 1891.  Its Victorian-inspired greenhouse, Haupt Conservatory, is now 111 years old, and a glorious place to enjoy and study plants from every climate of the globe.  The Garden also encompasses 50 acres of the largest piece of old-growth forest which once covered all of New York City. 

Combine these facts with the seven much more dramatic photographs from my previous post, 2012 In Photographs, and we have a solid argument for the Botanical Garden as an important embodiment of place.  Nevertheless, this simple composition of a man, seated on a bench, reading (or studying) from a notebook full of loose-leaf pages, embodies a sense of comfort and tranquillity.

He could just as well have stayed home to read.  There, he would have more conveniences: a comfortable couch, a desk on which he could more easily write notes, a more controlled light situation, access to a toilet or to a refrigerator for food and drink.   Instead, he chose a pilgrimage to this place, possibly to connect with its distant past, or to enjoy its dappled light and changing summer breezes.  The Garden is a place to stimulate his environmental awareness and help him to regain a poetic connection to the world.

Times Square, Manhattan, New York, 47th Street, Advertising lights and billboards

Defined by Broadway’s diagonal as it angles west from 42nd to 47th Streets, Times Square is midtown Manhattan’s major commercial intersection and has become known as “The Crossroads of the World.”  Forgotten by most of us is that, ever since 1913, it also is the eastern terminus of the Lincoln Highway--the other terminus being Lincoln Park in San Francisco.   Certainly a major terminus qualifies as a significant place. 

Still, whatever sort of “place” was experienced in the 18th century, when this locus of points in space we now call Times Square housed only the manor house of John Morin Scott,  or in the later 19th century, when it was known as Longacre Square and was the center of New York’s carriage industry, had changed radically once the first electrified advertisement appeared in the spring of 1904 on the side of a bank at 46th Street and Broadway.

Because advertising and merchandizing are predicated on global reach and instant communication, they would seem the least likely activities to generate any special sense of place.  Yet, over time, with its increasing concentration of electrified light and competing ads, Times Square generated place through words, images, colored light, and the masses of people who flocked there.   At night, its buildings recede, and the glow of competing advertising lights 
embrace us.  This photograph captures some of that aura on 47th Street, one block north of the bank that gave Times Square its first advertisement in light.

Manhattan, New York, Union Square, Mohandas Gandhi, 1896, Kantilal B. Patel

Mohandas Gandhi, or Mahatma (“Great Soul), stands in his own small garden in the southwest corner of Union Square.  This tiny place has become a pilgrimage site ever since it was installed some 26 years ago.   The ubiquitous floral or herbal wreaths offer evidence of the special respect given to him and his place, as does the fact that I have never seen anyone actually occupy his immediate surroundings, known as Gandhi Gardens. 

Gandhi, the man who had led India to independence from British rule, the father of modern non-violent civil disobedience, and the inspiration behind our own civil rights movement, surely belongs in Union Square--New York’s traditional gathering place for public protest.  He joins three earlier and more monumental statues dedicated to freedom’s champions: Washington, Lafayette and Lincoln.

Ropes, Brooklyn, New York, Gleason's Gym

It may take a boxer or a boxing fan to elevate a boxing gym to the category of a special place, but Gleason’s Gym is that place. Boxers, boxing aficionados, and others visit it from all over the world.   As it moved from the lower Bronx (where it first opened in 1937),  to 30th Street in Manhattan (in 1974),  to its present location on Front Street in Brooklyn a decade later, Gleason's survived and now is the oldest and busiest boxing gym in the world.   Jake LaMotta (“The Bronx Bull”) trained here, as did Benny Paret (“The Kid”) and Roberto Durán (“Manos de Piedra”). Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali, trained at Gleason’s in preparation for his first match against Sonny Liston in 1964:   Liston failed to answer the bell in the 7th round, and Cassius Clay won the World Heavyweight Title.   Gleasons is the sacred center of the “sweet science” of boxing.

Above the Housatonic,  Stockbridge, MA, house, 1979, Christopher H. L. Owen

In 1979, the architect Christopher H. L. Owen designed this house for a Dartmouth College professor of English and American Literature.   It sits at the edge of a bluff above the Housatonic River, just outside of Stockbridge, MA.  The site is magical, enhanced even more by the openness of Owen’s modernist design. Actually, I would argue that Owen’s design decisions revealed the site’s potential magic

The house’s rear edge faces the river and is totally glass, but not configured as a single, flat plane.   Its glass wall steps and jogs, accommodating the changing functions of the interior spaces while also inflecting the riverbank outside.  The short ends of the house also gesture to the landscape, becoming angled, outdoor porches.

Because I was fortunate to be able to spend a night in this house and experience it for an afternoon, evening, and morning,  I began to realize how much Owen’s design made the house one with the landscape.   If this were a house with traditional, opaque walls, even if those walls contained large, picture windows that provided views of all the major landscape elements,  it still would be a house set in a landscape.  In contrast, Owen has designed this house in a way that the landscape appears to be part of the house, a continuation of the house.

Here house and landscape combine to create a place, a space with a distinctly magical character.  It could be said that the design and placement of the house has evoked the genius loci, the protective spirit of the place.

Foster, R. I., Weathervane,  garden of a private house

This was taken in late December in rural Rhode Island, a garden in winter recession.   I took this photograph not to capture some sense of place, but because I was attracted to this small thing.  Patinaed and corroded, it easily might be overlooked and lost among the summer explosion of color and growth.  But then, as a small thing selected by the residents of this country house and intentionally set up in this place, it is intimately related to their identity. 

It reminded me that I had seen many eye-catching, quirky things
inside the house, on walls and shelves.  Each was interesting in some way, yet each was subordinate to the larger, interior space.  None stood out or said, “look at me.”  Rather, as with this weathervane, they seemed to ask, “have you discovered me yet?”  These interior objects--and this weathervane and several other curious garden objects--create place and impart to it a particular imaginative poetry. 

Finally, in selecting this particular photographic image of a small weathervane,  I can’t help but consider the word itself.   "Vane" derives from the Old English word, “fane,” which means “flag.”  A flag, of course, is chiefly a statement of identity, and so this small hummingbird vane serves well as an identifier of the couple who built the house and planted the garden.  It helps define their place in this world.

Summer: Corporation Beach, Dennis, MA, Corporation Road Beach

In today’s lingo, “life’s a beach” is a common clause for evoking a good life of comfort and leisure.   This idea, of course, disregards the likelihood that these words were coined to counteract that common, pessimistic clause, “life’s a bitch.”  Nevertheless, the pleasures of sunbathing go back far in time, as revealed by the Latin word, apricatio, which means “basking” or “sitting in the sun.”

As a teenager, I embraced the positive virtues of this activity,  but no longer do.  Nowadays, I’d put sunbathing right down there with root canal operations.  Still, the beach has universal appeal 
as a place.  The evocative smell of salty air,  the encounter with the infinite as one looks out to sea,  the soothing repetition of waves breaking on the shore,  and the give-and-take of energy as one swims against and with those waves turn almost any beach into a place of magnetic attraction.

Wellfleet, MA, Adams (Masonic) Lodge, 1877

The irregular granite stairs instantly captured my interest, as did the wrought iron arch under which visitors passed before reaching the front door.  There was something curious and special about this house that looked down on what had been the commercial center, the harbor of this once-busy whaling and fishing port.

What I only learned lately, while googling the Adams Lodge, is that it was, and remains, a Masonic Lodge (not a quaint inn, as I had surmised).  Appropriately enough, then, the lodge sits above the town of Wellfleet, separate and aloof. Access to it by those stairs seems a daunting.  After all, the Masons, with their mysterious symbols and secret rituals, never did fit easily into the ways of early New England Puritanism. 

The Adams Lodge was established in 1796.  The building at this location dates from 1877.  To me, those stairs make the place. I think about the Capitoline in Rome--not the comfortable, easy slope of Michelangelo’s Cordonata, but the much steeper steps a bit to their left.  These, earlier, medieval steps lead up to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and penitents would ascend them on their knees.

Boston, MA, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Courtyard, Roman floor mosaic, 117-138 AD

The courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is formed by the four interior walls of the building that she commissioned in 1898 from her architect, Willard T. Sears.  She intended Fenway Court (her house and now museum) to evoke the late medieval and Renaissance palaces of Venice, and she then filled it entirely with the art that she collected. 

The center of the courtyard is dominated by this floor mosaic that she purchased five years after it was discovered a bit north of Rome in 1892.   The mosaic dates from the time of Hadrian (117-138 AD) and depicts the head of Medusa in its center.

I need say no more.  To me, there are few things that evoke the poetry of place more than a dwelling which offers its inhabitants an internal, central garden: the outdoors, inside, a stage for infinite activities.

Cafe G: Floating Lights, Boston, MA, addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Cafe G, 2010-12, Renzo Piano

The internationally-famous Italian architect, Renzo Piano, just completed an addition to the Gardner Museum, but his addition  remains separate from the old structure of Fenway Court.  Only a vaulted, glass corridor leads into and connects with the old museum;  otherwise, his addition keeps a respectful distance.  Glass walls provide views of Fenway Court, and Piano suggested the analogy of our being in the greenhouse from which we can see the palace, “but are not there yet.” 

Piano summarized his design by saying: “We found a poetic language in two things.  One is sound, and the other one is light.”   I cannot show you sound, nor did I photograph his wonderful performance hall.   However, this simple view, taken in the cafe where we had lunch, captures some of the magic of transparency, reflection, and light on a dark, rainy, winter afternoon.

Memphis, TN, Elvis Presley Plaza, Elvis Presley, 1997, Andrea Lugar

I realize that this is simply a photograph of a sculpture and can hardly convey any sense of place.  Yet, being a statue of Elvis, it is emblematic of the city of Memphis and it is placed in a small park at the corner of South Main Street and Beale Street.  

To the west, Beale Street heads downhill to the Mississippi River.  To the east, Beale Street also slopes down and immediately becomes that tourist attraction of honky-tonks, blues clubs, bars and restaurants for which it is famous.  Here is the “home of the blues,” and Elvis is our greeter.  This particular spot, this place, is a hinge between two very different forms of enterprise.  Elvis is its lynchpin.

Memphis, TN, Mud Island, Riverwalk, Lower Mississippi River model
Mud Island is a long peninsula in the Mississippi River, easily accessible from downtown Memphis by a monorail, which lets passengers off at the Museum of the Mississippi River and, at ground level, the head of the Riverwalk.  

This Riverwalk is an exact scale, contoured model of the last 954 miles of the lower Mississippi, from Cairo, IL to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.  At a scale of 30” to the mile, the walk is 2,000’ or five blocks in length.  The Riverwalk is a wonderful learning tool and a great place to play, sit, read or picnic.  And as you wade in the river, as this young Huck Finn is doing, or walk its shoreline, you will also encounter the plans of twenty cities inset at their appropriate locations.

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