Monthly Archives: October 2012

Troubled Bridge Over Water

Every trip up to the Hudson Valley for the last three years, we sped past the sign at 65 mph, never slowing. The sign for Walkway over the Hudson became a marker or sorts – a landmark, but also, a point of contention between one who wanted to stop and one who didn’t. It was looking as if that sign would be as close as I would ever come to experiencing the actual site. The sign was small, smaller than the tension in the car that  was palpable.

One of us has a problem with heights and would not be a party to a stroll over a 212-foot-high “gangplank” suspended over a wide and deep (50-60 feet) river – a defunct railroad bridge, now a pedestrian path, which began its conversion in 2008 and was completed in 2009.

At last, my opportunity presented itself with the visit of a non-height-averse longtime friend this past week. Yippee! A chance to soar in the Taconic region of the Hudson River and to follow the elusive sign.

Let me see: I have walked the High Line, which is not really high. I have climbed three mountains in the past year. All these encounters have provided placeness in the way that they create a sense of place in their settings, enhancing the experience accordingly. There is a give and take between the venue and the view. Sadly, I hesitate to say that I did not find placeness at the Walkway. The Walkway, despite offering pleasant views of the Hudson that are not usually available except in a car or train, doesn’t seem involved with its site; rather it seems like a platform for viewing a site. Yes, it is high. Yes, it allows one to look up- and downstream from the center of a large body of water. Yes, it is a wonderful connection between the east and west banks for two-legged, four-legged and two-wheeled pedestrians.

I guess the reservation I have about it is that it has no intrinsic beauty in and of itself to add to the experience. It is a wide sidewalk with thick and high railings – functional and plain – in contrast to the river, not in harmony with it; very distinctly separating the human-made and the nature. At this point in time, it is a big bare plaza; hard and cold and not a little bland and monotonous. Not having seen the original, I would guess that the old railroad bridge with tracks and creosote-soaked ties and opportunistic weeds and grasses poking through the cracks had way more character and placeness. Although this is a pedestrian byway, it resembles more so a highway.

I don’t want to denigrate the Walkway, because I think it is a noble effort, especially since I think that we need more such efforts made for pedestrians. But there is something missing, some connection and integration. I have the feeling that an engineer, not an architect, designed the look and feel of it – heavy and practical, like Soviet-era buildings and U.S. interstates.

The bottom line, though, is that there are very few enjoyable ways to cross the Hudson River on foot, and this one bridge is dedicated to that purpose. I have to give bonus points for that. Until Walkway opened, the options were: the George Washington Bridge, where you can be overwhelmed by speeding traffic right beside you – one would have to be on Valium to get through this trauma; the Bear Mountain Bridge, which is cute and smaller scale, but you get to walk or ride on the shoulder of the road with big expansion-joint gaps; the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, the longest pedestrian span across but its floor is textured metal and can be slippery; the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, high and on the narrow side, and you get to be right in amongst the traffic with no divider; and the Rip van Winkle and the Dunn Memorial bridges, both of which have pedestrian walkways much like the George Washington Bridge’s lovely nerve-racking offering.

I am grateful for the existence of this one-and-only pedestrian bridge. I am hopeful, though, that things will improve in an aesthetic way for the Walkway. It has potential, it has good bones. What it should have is a sense of place, arslocii.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture

From the Back of the Bosch

Here’s the irony – that a place designed to be the jumping-off spot to get you to thousands of other places perhaps has no placeness of its own – and here’s food for thought: Just about every location that we have written about here which we state has “placeness” has always defined “placeness” as being a positive attribute … so, can there be negative placeness, too?

Due to no fault of my own (unless you believe in karmic punishment), I recently found myself the victim of missed intercity bus connections – thanks a whole lot, Adirondack Trailways; up yours, Greyhound; take a full flying leap, Megabus) – and thus spent way, way too much time hanging around departure gates in New York City’s version of the right-side panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights”: the Port Authority building.


Harried, misdirected, ill-informed, schedule-strained, sweaty and nervous passengers, each with too many too-big bags carried and rolled and dragged and pushed from one uninformative loading-dock doorway to another, from one building to another, find themselves funneled into a subterranean hell pit teeming with similar misfortunates, predators, beggars, uncaring and unhelpful employees, homeless, home-bound, home-found and the temporarily and permanently lost. It smells, it’s dirty, the lighting defies international illumination standards and odds are you are either at the moment or will very shortly discover that you are standing in something you wish you weren’t. Lines of good people pushed to the edge wait by sliding doors which open, every now and then, but do not announce imminent boarding or disembarking, but rather seemed designed only to permit diesel fumes to engulf all nearby. Everybody asks questions – Is this the right gate? Is it running on time? Do I need to check my bags? Will I need to change in Springfield? – and for every query there are three answers from bus-company employees, all of them wrong or unclear. Nostradamus is said to have spied the future, but Hieronymus Bosch certainly painted it.

As I waited for the two-hour ride to get home, which took, instead, four hours, was the wrong bus, and instead of an express it made three stops (but who’s counting), I wondered (something you have the time to do if you don’t purposely zone out in an act of self-preservation and actually allow yourself to think) how it could be that this roiling wonderland, with its combustion-engine tentacles slung out to all corners of the continent, could so lack placeness. It had interest, it had humanity (in extremis), it clearly had memorableness, it had uniqueness (unless you live most of the time on Mumbai streets) – but what kept it from having “placeness,” as I had come to define the term, was that it didn’t have engagement, and challenge, and invitation to the senses (instead of an assault on them), and the kind of empathy we’ve discussed in which you feel that you know the place because it somehow includes a recognition, a self-recognition, and a fulfillment, in which you and the place and objects in that place interlock, as if long-lost siblings who know, just know, that they’re made of the same stuff. More controversial is the notion that the Port Authority lacks placeness because it lacks beauty, of any sort; not all placeness requires or projects beauty, but there is something beautiful at least in the notion of a placeness-redolent place, even if it seems more rough than beautiful.

But then I wondered (I had the time; I was into only the 20th minute of a 40-minute late stretch): What if I’m wrong? What if I’m missing the point here – that this place, which has such impact (though horrifying) and is so memorable (in a nightmarish way) does have placeness, but negative placeness, like an evil-twin placeness, or a Bizarro-world placeness, a George Costanza placeness: that whatever you know to be the definition of placeness, this is the opposite … and, yet, has a placeness, too. It is the dark side of placeness, but as with all such darkness, it may be necessary for it to exist so that we know the brightness.

Frankly, though fascinating to bump into the dark-matter placeness and realize its existence, I prefer the positive placeness we have written about here for years – the same way I like to arrive at a destination on time, to make my connection. And, next time, to use Amtrak. All things considered, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, I’ll stick to the other two panels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random

Cat O’ One Tail

Some years back, I bought a potentially goofy-looking ceramic pot online. It was a seated cat figure, with an almost human face, and with the planter area at, appropriately, the backside of the animal. Let’s just say, it spoke to me. When the newcomer arrived, I happened to have on hand a tiny cactus which I thought might be a funny choice for this container, since the design sort of asked for it. The cactus was about 4” high when it took up residence, making the planter’s form and its living stubby “tail” resemble that of a Manx cat more so than most felines I know.

I admit I have a number of succulents, and this one might be the oldest. It is now, certainly, the tallest. I could never have imagined that it would reach such heights. At a certain time during its life – say, when the plant had tripled or quadrupled in size – I worried about its ability to support its own weight. I rigged up small cages – scaffolding, really – that kept the wind from knocking it over during its summers outdoors.

For many years, when cat-pot plant was outside it would sit on a small table about two feet off the ground, happily enjoying light filtered through the tree above. A couple of years ago, it became too tall and unwieldy to safely sit atop the table, so it then rested beneath the table with its “tail” extending to just below the table top. A couple of more seasons passed, and the “tail” was well above the table’s surface.

For safety’s sake, I started anchoring the cage supports, tying them down to the chair next to the table to make sure that, even sitting on the ground, the cactus would not be tumbled over by wind or storms.

I have never known exactly what kind of cactus this one is. I think it comes from the Espostoa family, but which one, exactly, is a puzzle. It has flowered once or twice – tiny floral eruptions from its side – making me imagine that it might be about to extend a new limb or some lateral growth. But, no, it just keeps climbing skyward.

Every year I think that this will be its last because, omg, it can’t keep going and not collapse. It now has a permanent cage support and has had it for some time. As you see, it would collapse without this assistance. In mid-2012 I had to extend the already-high wire structure because my cactus friend grew another 6” or so beyond the original cage. I have left it room to keep on growing, as it so desires.

It has become not only a magnificent cactus and, in its perfect container setting, a stunning tail. For me, it has almost become a marker of time and growth, like the kind you would notch onto a door jamb for a child. And at this rate, the plant may soon outgrow me. But even more, the cactus has proven itself to be an over-achiever and an emblem of going against the odds. When I bought it in a 3” pot at the annual flower show and brought it home, what were its chances for survival? If I were to take it back to the flower show, to let the vendor know that here was a super plant – it would blow some minds. Here is the power of nature, right smack dab in this goofy cat pot. Arslocii.

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random, Small & Great, Uncategorized

The Journey Within

All Japanese gardens, if done well, done imaginatively and artfully but also done within tradition’s fairly rigid and proscribed parameters (or with an abiding respect for or creative spin on them) have placeness. In their sensitive tough-love partnership of nature and the shaping human hand, they are almost the definitive working model of arslocii. Though the inclusion of certain elements – pathways and materials and physical relationships – can be, need be found in all such gardens, the designers of them have found ways to be faithful and yet to be singular, to take the time-honored and familiar pieces and mold something that feels old and new, even renewed, formal yet comfortable, all at once. Without knowing much about such places, one merely has to go to one, a good one, and to sit in it, and to be in it, and one will know that it is right.

We have been to a few such places, most recently Shofuso, which began life slightly more than a half-century ago as an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which somehow found its way to a small carved-out niche in the westernmost portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Shofuso is, like its not-too-distant neighbor Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees, an amenity – a throwback to a time when cities believed it was in the public good to provide such things, and when citizens felt that their tax dollars were well-spent in the providing. They are relics of a bygone era – in fact, two eras, from two nations – and in that way alone Shofuso would have placeness.

But, in any discussion of Shofuso and placeness – in fact, of most such amenities and their placeness – inherent nature can be less interesting than situation.

Where Shofuso resides, it is within a park but up against a busy road, and the park is within a hard-scrabble and rundown neighborhood, which is in a city, which is in a large metropolitan area, which is in a cohesive region. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, one can start at the particular and zoom out to the general – from the lake in Shofuso up and out to view the expanse of the encompassing geography. Each element is within another; one exists because the other does.


Often, the placeness of a place is not so much the place itself but the place it’s in, and the place that that place is in, and so on. Much of what gives a place its placeness is the coming upon it. In this way of thinking, placeness is like nested Russian eggs, where, by removing the larger outer shell one finds a smaller one of equal or surpassing beauty within, and by opening this newly found egg, one encounters another. One egg gives over to another, smaller, until, finally, one arrives at the core egg, the gem most nested inside, like a cut stone in a jewel box. Often, what gives this final egg its specialness is not that it is so much more lovely than those that preceded it, but that they did precede it – that there was a process of discovery, a journey, and that coming upon this final egg was the culmination, a bestowed specialness. The prize in a CrackerJack box has little value; it is that it hides from view, and one must send fingers on a burrowing adventure to find it. It is the path of discovery, however messy, that makes the found item something of (even momentary) merit.

But what makes this placeness reductionism even more rewarding is that, unlike the nested eggs, there really is no endpoint to the focusing journey. Within Shofuso, say, there is a teahouse, and within the teahouse is the ceremonial room, and within the room are tatami mats, and one of these mats is a small rectangle, and it is upon this tiny spot that the teapot is placed, and where so much is done in the tea ritual. A place within a place within a place. You could stop anywhere along the placeness continuum and feel the placeness. But if you continue, you can find more.


Leave a comment

Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Philly-centric, Small & Great

Fence Me In

In William Cronon’s book, Changes in the Land – Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, he painstakingly investigates the multitude of uses versus non-uses that the American landscape has endured and the resulting changes it has weathered – uses that were imposed for sustainable, cultural, economic or belief-system reasons. In among the eco-ethnological interactions that he discusses (and it is all engaging), what stood out when I first read the book about 15 years ago and what still floors me is the concept of bounding and separating land – something we just take for granted now. Fences.

As a long-time admirer of fences and walls, I was made aware of their origins, purpose and form after having studied landscape history and reading this book. Walls and fences were the first renderings of physical boundaries in the New World (copied of course from the Old World), and their introduction into the environment gave glimpses of the land divisions and sub-divisions yet to come in the ravenous and commodious future. These first fences must have boggled the minds of Native Americans considering that theirs was an open, borderless landscape.

Cronon says that fences were the result of “an effort to control the relationship between domesticated animals and crops.” So, fences became “not only the map of a settlement’s property rights, but its economic activities and ecological relationships as well.” Gardens were separated from cornfields, meadows from pastures – divisions of labor and purpose that ended up repurposing the land’s ecosystems with fixed ideas about boundaries and use, as well as a proprietary stamp.

As the acreage was sliced and diced, the fences and walls became the three-dimensional lines drawn. Nearly 400 years later, fences abound. They exist in every type of landscape imaginable, often more for keeping human animals within or without spatial delineations, and still, in rural settings, to keep both wild and husbandry animals separate from domestic crops. But they also have become a design element on the land; a way of expressing something about where your place is situated, or perhaps, where you would like it to be situated, or how you might want to locate it in some meaningful historical context, or disconnect it from a lousy neighbor, or maybe, just keep dogs from peeing on it. It is quite rare to see an unfenced property except in what we call wilderness areas. Fences now, just as in Colonial times, are a sign of an “improved” property. This begs the question: Are the fences themselves improved?

Fences are mostly purely functional, but they can also be stylish or even whimsical. Sometimes I think the whimsical ones are trying to give something back while they take away access – an apology of sorts. I am intrigued by the artful choice of materials, the spacing of the upright pieces, the height, the mass, and I am especially wowed by a curved fence or wall, because, let’s face it, most everything in the world of real estate is rectilinear. Curviness is unnecessary, unless circumnavigating something round like a tree, and because of that it is extraordinary; plus, it takes someone skilled to build a curve well.

When a property owner puts some character into a fence, when a fence expresses something about its site or the site’s inhabitants – that’s when it gets my attention, when it is not merely a boundary but an artistic endeavor. It is the evolution from a functional accessory into something that is personal and unique and which provides placeness, that makes me pause to ponder it, not the prefab sections from the home-improvement store. Fences can be aesthetic statements, they can be clever or just plain fun. They can be made from fabricated materials or found ones. Because there is no mandate to go the extra bit beyond standard fencedom – to make something protective so attractive or eye-catching – that is why it is so noteworthy; creating an underline or outline, rather than just a line.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random