Monthly Archives: August 2010

America, Misplaced

We here at arslocii aren’t very political, at least not in the capital “P” sense. We have things that get us riled up, of course, and events and personages (and reactions to those events and personages) that we have strong opinions about. And, occasionally, we’ll shove a little money (a very little money) at them, and especially if irresistible, wounded, furry creatures are part of the pitch. But those folks out there at rallies wielding signs and slogans, those doorbell ringers with clipboards and explications and supplications, those drivers with Volvos or Subarus held together by bumper stickers that seem to be everywhere but on the bumpers – that won’t be us.

However, viewing our homeland through an arslocii filter, we can’t help but think – no, more than think: believe – that the problem with this country – and it is a country with a problem, one that goes beyond the economy or oil spills or Generation E (for Entitlement), or, rather, that weaves through and connects them, or, perhaps, engendered them – is that the United States no longer has placeness.

Sure, it still has spots like the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley that make any sensitive person go “whoa.” And there are the locations and nooks and niches that we’ve written about here that strike us as having placeness.

But, writ large, as an entity, a physical and reified locale, even just as a working concept – which America has always and, maybe, primarily been – it is, today, a place without placeness, a place without the power (or magic) to compel us to see ourselves in it, to recognize and reunite with ourselves when we view or contemplate it, to be empathetic in concert with it, to spy our better angels in it. James Kunstler has written that what dooms a place is when it becomes a place we no longer care about – not enough to fight for, to improve, to see as a common good, to seek to unify in any way other than for economic or partisan profit. To keep clean, to be outraged over, to cry for and with, to take proper steps to ensure a future life in, to have fondness for in ways that transcend childhood memories and the comfort-food caress of passed-down biases – to care about, to feel the placeness in, to crave the art and artfulness of it, and enjoy the art of living and the living art.

We’re not talking about patriotism or nationalism or jingoism – they don’t create placeness, they supersede it with slogans and divisions, landgrabs and false certainties … and fear. Placeness is the opposite of fear, alive in partnership with an awe that is not rooted in intimidation.

We need to reconnect and reimagine by thinking of “place” beyond the ways we think of it now: selfishly (“my place”), competitively (where you placed in the race), conveniently (placing a drained bottle on someone else’s steps, placing discarded life in a holding cell for adoption or disposal). We have to “de-prefix” our tendency to re-place or dis-place or mis-place, and concentrate on the “place” at the root. The reverence and respect that one feels when one has entered a spot with “placeness” is what is missing so much today in this country and in discourse about this country. We all need to think of this country and placeness the way immigrants have imagined it since the beginning: as a place of hope, not purely acquisition; of illumination, not confusion; as a spot on Earth that tingles with a justice that goes beyond mere laws – a place with a placeness that says “home” without having to build fences around the homestead.

We are living in a time of prose when what we need is poetry, or, at least, adjectives designed to color and deepen rather than wound or build an advantage upon.

Until we find a way to make this country a place redolent of, resonating with, influenced by and desirous of placeness, then it is fated to be no place at all. But, then, it shouldn’t be something we need to make – it is already here. We just have to want it, see it, rediscover it, feel it and embrace it.

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Home Place

Arslocii writes a lot about place, especially other places, sometimes far-reaching places. But there is another place, the most significant one really, and that is the place we call home. Home can be as difficult to find as those other special places are, or it can be easy. It is not easy for us. Maybe that is why we seek placeness in all locales, although we know the difference between placeness of the soul and placeness of the heart. Our quest for a sense of place may be a direct result of feeling like misfits most of the time. Our strongest sense of place is inside us – we are trying to find it externally as well. Our guess is that many people derive a sense of place from external factors: being in a family, being a part of a community, living in a neighborhood, structuring their lives around what is meaningful to them – their world reflecting back at them what their place in it is. Building from the outside in, like a house.

What about those of us who build from the inside out? Maybe we are not the norm but there is no manual for life that says it can’t work that way. There is more struggle with this approach, more effort required but, perhaps we hope, more reward. We begin with a strong sense of who we are and try to maneuver our way through an unyielding maze of conformity. Or maybe we build that internal sense through trying to negotiate the maze – it’s a chicken/egg thing. The attempt is to find one’s own way, creatively, uniquely.

We have found house, but have we found home? We love our abode. We should, we made it, in a sense. Starting with the original 1873 manse built by a stone mason/builder for himself to live in, a place that from certain accounts had indoor plumbing and an orchard on its grounds. Fast forward nearly a hundred years, and watch while the late 19th century and most of the 20th reveal the up- and down-side of the economy reflected in this one building: As house became a local bottler’s retail outlet (with the plant built behind – goodbye orchard), then an empty prohibition casualty, later a series of taverns, take-outs, a boarding house and finally, (drum roll) offices for a plumbing and heating contractor (with warehouse behind). And, as is often the case, as the usefulness of a structure wanes, so does the viability of the surrounding neighborhood. When we rolled in it was no longer recognizable as a house, let alone a home. And, too, the neighborhood had been on a downward spiral along with it.

Following our twenty-plus years of sweat production and hard decisions, we have, like a tugboat, escorted this large ship into the 21st century as a house once more. And we think it is wonderful. Most likely unrecognizable to the guy who constructed and designed it, we like to think he would be pleased that it has returned to its original purpose. We honor his memory and his ability to build the most solid house we have ever known by making his work whole again and living in it. Happily living in it.

As we have actively improved our house, we have watched as the immediate area – the community – has changed from a mostly working-but-not getting ahead-class to a mostly non-working-and-selling-drugs-but-not-getting-ahead-class to, now, an influx of student-renters who are being funded by their suburban middle class parents to make them into useful citizens somehow in between their prolonged periods of inebriation. Sometimes I believe we are living in 1970s Russia. Speaking of which, there are coincidentally, Russians buying up empty lots in the area and building mega-houses for the new crop of young professionals pouring out of all these colleges, once they have sobered up and become “citizens.” Or maybe not.

But such an in-flux, together with a vying-for-space mishmash of people does not build stability. In a sense, you could call us pioneers, since we were among the artist wave of early adopters of funky old buildings that nobody else saw value in, other than the generations that were stuck in history-repeating cycles. We had community at the start since we all were outsiders and we could pick each other out of the line-up of houses based on the non-traditional touches we applied to our residences. We all knew each other, some of us visited each others studios and some of us became friends and socialized. There was a smattering of us, not too concentrated, maybe one house per block which made it fun to seek out our other partners-in-crime. So our inner selves got to be expressed, in a small but significant way, in our external interactions. For a while.

Only, just like our house and its changes, many of the artists grew up or grew apart or outgrew the neighborhood and moved on. We might be the last ones standing. And as twenty-plus years went skating by, here we are, still in place but not experiencing a sense of place any longer. In our house, yes, but not so much here in the neighborhood. Although the neighborhood is still changing and trying to figure out what it is now – it is currently a cluster of mini-neighborhoods: the old, the brand new, the temporary, those not-too-thrilled about change, those desperately clinging to what they have known in the face of a disappearing way of life, those looking to a brighter horizon or a beginning.

Where are we in all of this? A little lost. In a place but not of it. We are, surprising to us, looking for a kind of place to call home. A place that speaks to us on a number of levels, or maybe different levels from what we desired oh so many years ago. We are seeking arslocii as a place to live. It takes both the house and the site to create the synthesis. Maybe we will find it again. In the meantime, we have one of the two.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Musings, Philly-centric

Farrand and Sears: Spirit of Site

From what we at arslocii have witnessed, great landscape architecture can create placeness – a feeling and unique spirit of a site. There are two particular, noteworthy practitioners, sadly gone from this Earth who, based on visual supporting evidence, had a most rare ability of creating site-specific placeness. As amazing as it is, they were contemporaries, and both attended Harvard for their studies. They might even have been rivals for commissions – but, no matter which of the two was chosen to design an estate, garden, or public park, it was a win-win for the person doing the hiring. Both have left remarkable memorials of their prowess.

The two notables are Beatrix Jones Farrand and Thomas Warren Sears, designers of the highest order who are remembered by some, but not enough. Landscape architects, even currently, don’t get the kind of status that architects do, and back in the founding days of the profession the praise and honor was probably more scarce. Lucky for us, there is some scattered evidence of the genius of these two in sites along the East Coast, showing their different approaches but their shared sensibility to place and place-making. (There is also a third practitioner of note, who left his marks on the western landscape, Thomas Dolliver Church, but we will discuss him another time.)

So, what is it that these luminaries were able to do to rise above mere garden design? And why do their designs remain, largely intact, as places worth protecting? They were, both of them, skilled in combining materials with the landscape and creating something greater than the two parts, forming a living, breathing combination that has an inevitability. A bit of artfulness and science, alchemical and nearly godlike. And we believe that it comes from an extraordinary sensitivity – to seeing what is there, to knowing what is possible, and sensing how far is far enough, of allowing the materials and the site to be as one, of being craftsmanlike but knowing when nature does it better – a fine balancing of ego and egolessness. And that’s just the starting point.

It is hard to speak in generalizations about their works because each effort is unique and, alas, we have not seen all examples. However, we have seen enough to be awestruck. The works that we have had the privilege to behold have been jaw-dropping, holy places – places that might appear at first to have just sprung from the ground, although logically that could not have happened, but they have that kind of impact and presence and integration. Places that, when you leave them, have left you changed. A mentor of Ms. Farrand’s told her that the plan should fit the ground, and that one should never attempt to change the ground for the plan. Good advice. Mr. Sears must have had a similar concept, considering that he was also a landscape photographer.

So what have we seen by these two artists? From the mind and desk of Ms. Farrand: Bellefield, Princeton’s Wyman House, the long driveway at The Mount and Dumbarton Oaks. We have also, unknowingly, enjoyed the benefit of her work at Yale and the University of Chicago, and other sections of the Princeton campus. As for Mr. Sears’ contributions: the back terrace and fountain at Chanticleer, the swimming pool at Chanticleer, original designs for Mt. Cuba and the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater at Swarthmore College. Any one of these projects could be a candidate for a lifetime-achievement award, but the lists go on.

Using a common palette of materials, the designs are uncommon. The references to classicism are present but with a modern swagger. The work is of a time and yet timeless in its effect. Sometimes it is the simplicity and, in other situations, it is the details that bring it all to life. Enhancement, decoration, interpretation, visionary splendor, harmony, seduction, arslocii.

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Shhh … Placeness in Progress

Memo from the Sudden Epiphany Dept.: All this year we’ve been writing, here, about places, and the concept of placeness, and placeness as art, and, deeper within our analyses and explorations, what placeness means, and what art is, or can be, or should be. Heady stuff, indeed, for mere mortals.

But, looking over our eight-month-long string of essays, we noticed a common thread that we hadn’t noticed before; and that is, that every location that we have discussed as being imbued with placeness has been someplace peaceful, quiet, a place of near-silent  reflection. No Niagaras, but rural fields and empty lots and vacated rooms. No bustling city corners, but rather the oases that are respites from the surrounding urban hubbub. No shouts, just echoes.

So, what does this mean? Is this just our personal preferences coloring our intellectualizing? It’s too consistent to be coincidence. It can’t mean that art is a quiet thing; after all, “Guernica” screams, and Shakespeare was, often, no shrinking violet.

But, it is possible that, objectively, what gives a place placeness is its whispering heart touching our receptive and reflective soul? Is it conceivable that what placeness possesses when it is art, and especially when it is great art, is its soft soundless touch, even if it comes after a loud slap? Is artful placeness the ripple in the pond, not the thrown stone and splash that caused the ripple, and which we did not have to be there to observe?

Or, again, is it just us, and your mileage may vary? Some want the unspoken apartness of a monastery; others want to handle snakes and cry out in tongues. Both consider their actions as tapping into the holy. Is placeness only in the hushed chapel and not the rollicking evangelical tent? Is art to be found only in the former, or is it just a question of different art?

Lots of questions.

Ultimately, here, it’s our ride and our dime, and what we determine has placeness is what has placeness … in our determination. But, as with waves of energy and subatomic particles, there may be more things out there, Horatio, than we can see and know and be informed by … and changed by.

For now, our work-in-progress definition of placeness and the art-ness of it feels right to us, and thinks right to us. We seem to be on the right track … it seems. But, like places and people, and everything there is, change is possible, maybe even inevitable, over time and experience. That’s the wonder and wonderfulness of this trip we – and, by extension, you – are on. To paraphrase the slogan of that annoying credit-card commercial, “What’s in your placeness?”

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