A Sense Of Place

by Don Friedman on January 25, 2019

That’s a picture of the train shed at the Bristol Temple Meads station. It’s a very old station, and it’s been altered several times. The shed roof here and the head house off to the left are, I believe, mostly from the 1870s renovation. I took this picture as I got off a train because it struck me as a good representation of the idea of architectural place.

The easiest way to describe my idea is to discuss a different trip, several years ago, to Paris. I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, walked through the terminal, got on a train, and got off at an underground station about a block from my hotel. Everything from the plane interior to the station could have been almost anywhere in the western world: planes, airport terminals, local trains, local train stations aren’t so very different from one place to another. I knew where I was, but the only visual clues that really suggested it were the signs in French. But then I got above ground right next to the¬†Jardins de l’Observatoire, where the trees’ foliage had been trimmed into cubes. And nothing says “Paris” to me as much as a cubical tree.

There are plenty of places where you can find metal-framed train-shed roofs next to masonry buildings, but those spidery-thin trusses directly abutting Victorian masonry says “England” to me more than just about anything else I can think of. Given my interests, I don’t identify different places by their food or their sound, or how people are dressed. I identify places by architectural (or pseudo-architectural, like the trees) details. “Brownstone” means Brooklyn to a lot of people, but “fake half-timbering” means Queens to me. “Insanely narrow downtown streets” means Philadelphia, a rectangular street grid with a lot of T intersections and flat-roofed houses means Miami, and miniature skyscrapers on a steep hill means Albany. Everyone has their own definitions of this kind, so not only does it not matter if other people think I’m wrong, I expect that almost everyone will think I’m wrong. We all develop our own sense of the appearance of a place, based on the same physical context but filtered through how we each see.

I grew up in Flushing and am basically the same age as Flushing Meadows Park, since it was built in its current configuration for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, which took place when I was an infant. My sense of the park is a vast open grassland with spindly trees and the leftover buildings from the fair. That sense is demonstrably wrong as it is based on how things looked in the mid-1970s. Those trees are now over 50 years old and are quite large. But even when I am physically in the park, as I was a few weeks ago, my view of it from my own past is that the trees are barely taller than me. This lingering sense of a place (and perhaps I should have titled this post “the persistence of memory“) helps explain why people grow attached to landmarks that are architecturally undistinguished or even ugly.

Stylistic Differences And Technology

January 16, 2019

That’s Buckhill Lodge, a private house located within Kensington Gardens in London. As I approached it and took this picture, I was surprised and thinking that carpenter’s gothic wasn’t really an English style. Then when I got closer, I realized that I had made a category error by making an assumption. Here’s the trim on […]

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Unclear Boundaries

January 15, 2019

That beautiful concrete is the undercroft, for want of a better term, at the London Bridge rail station. The station has a top-heavy configuration, with the entrances at street level and the tracks above. This makes sense for a constrained-site urban station, and London Bridge’s operational set-up reminded me of Jamaica Station. The concrete groin […]

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Street-Facing Dignity

January 14, 2019

A scene in London: I doubt the difference in styles means anything much, but the classical stone building on the left is the Institution of Civil Engineers, while the Victorian red-brick building on the right is the¬†Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The buildings are two short blocks from the Houses of Parliament, which is to say […]

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The Modern Gaze

January 6, 2019

That’s the interior of a saloon in Michigan. Those are (most likely) replica pendant lamps, a restored and painted tin ceiling, restored or replica wood window surrounds, and the exposed interior face of the brick wall. One of these things is not like the other: the more or less 1900 feel to the place is […]

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December 23, 2018

The underside of the approach spans of the Manhattan Bridge, in Dumbo. Thanks to the spiffy new paint job, the horizontal-plane cross-bracing is the most visually prominent element; but I love the ridiculously short and squat masonry piers that support the two spans (one above my head, one further away).

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A Different Angle

December 16, 2018

That’s lower Manhattan as seen from the South Williamsburg ferry landing. A brief flashback to a grittier time.

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