A Certain Somewhere: Writers on the Places They Remember Edited by Robert Wilson

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Places Discussed

People PlacesBook Notes

This is the missing manual of modernism. While the architectural and urban planning movement that self-styled itself as "modernism" sought to eradicate the human from built environments (see Ideal Cities for examples), this book of essays from Preservation magazine seeks to remind us that human beings use buildings and cities, and these people often come to love the places they inhabit for idiosyncratic reasons.

In the preface, Sudip Bose asks if we can value the realms of imagination that come from being in a place (p. xv). As an answer, these essays eloquently affirm the human tendency to form mental models of a place. These essays show that imaginative accumulation of emotion, history, people, events, and feelings merges with mental models. Mixed in are all kinds of messy, illogical, non-rational, and associative human tendencies that "modernism" has sought to deny, mock, or fake.

Urban rooms play a big role in several of the essays. Mallon documents a "mental stake" in the New York Public Library Main Reading room (p. 6) and shows that familiarity with a place stimulates imagination and satisfaction. Similarly, Rose shows how the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art create "hideaways" (p. 228) that are realms of learning and adventure. Jones points out the "best big room" (p. 134) as Grand Central Station, with its sleek way of serving user needs, delighting visitors, and engaging long-time residents with intricacies and intimacies.

Other essayists document the human affinities arising from place. Freeman shows how a family house is a site of feelings (p. 10). Hough speaks of a sandlot (p. 219) in which as a child, he could freely associate and speak with his peers, only modestly fettered by adult supervision. Similarly, Dirda tells of his youthful bliss in "adventure" (p. 239) in finding so much to do in the ordinary streets and stores and sites of Lorain, Ohio.

Indeed, human nature intertwines all these essays. Sanders shows how a fish on a courthouse (p. 85) symbolizes the whimsy inherent in Bloomington, Indiana. Morris shows how the lack of zoning and apparent order (p. 94) infuses Cairo with wonder and humanity. Isserman (p. 106) shows a desire for history is so strong that caretakers of Fort Ticonderoga have had to figure out a way to do away with the fake stories told there in order to make way for their best understanding of the truth.

One essay indirectly highlights a modernist education's shortcomings. In a page right out of Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking, Abercrombie wonders why in Sonoma, California (p. 172) free parking requires several circuits of the town's blocks to find a parking space. He further wonders why minimum parking requirements make it impossible for someone to start a restaurant. Ambercrombie, identified in the book notes as a "retired architect" perhaps learned his lessons of modernism all to well: he focused on the cars and their needs rather than people and what they feel about a place.

Modernists missed it when they thought it was the elite who could design living spaces based on their personal aesthetics or formulas (such as minimum parking space requirements). Instead, this book of essays, along with much other evidence (in books such as Suburban Nation, The Wealth of Cities, City-Building in America, The Great Good Place, Geography of Nowhere, and Home from Nowhere) give a different perspective: people matter.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com