By Crystal Olin
June 15, 2011
[Ms. Olin, a graduate of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture who worked at Albert, Righter & Tittmann, in Boston, was elected to the chapter’s board this spring but “complex life circumstances made it good and necessary” for Ms. Olin to move to Australia. She has kindly sent this reflection on Boston and Melbourne, her new home. In each set of photographs, the left is of Melbourne and the right of Boston.]
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What we build is a microcosm for larger truths about our culture and how we perceive of ourselves in the world. Some of these truths are ugly, and some are beautiful. Either way, what we build is a vivid reflection of who we are. Sometimes it is difficult to see ourselves clearly when viewing our reflection; we are not always honest with the lighting and rendering. So what if we could, as Alice did, step through the looking glass and see ourselves from a different angle? What if everything in this reflected world were deeply familiar, yet slightly off in one way or another, so as to help us re-evaluate what is what? And what if, upon examining the details of this different world, we came to a better understanding of our own reflection and identity?
As an American living in Australia, I often feel as if I have stepped through the looking glass.
For perspective, it is quite easy for me to consider Australia as a mirror reflection of America. The seasons are flipped, and so are the regions. As you go south, the climate gets colder and people move faster. Southerners tend to be more culturally liberal and inhabit older, denser cities. Northerners tend to be more conservative, and one might be reminded of Texas when traveling through Queensland. America’s Northeast is Australia’s Southeast – the hub of culture, fine arts, public transport, and urban identity. Indeed, my new home Melbourne reflects some of the same characteristics and urban sensibilities as my old home Boston: both harken back to their early days of European settlement, and both cities are visibly and vocally proud of this heritage.
In the course of my adventures through this Wonderland-like world that is Melbourne and not quite Boston, I find myself asking this question: What, fundamentally, makes a city American? Let me note here that both cities are quite compact and walkable, as well as architecturally and spatially intact. This makes them all the more appropriate to consider because, unlike many of their neighbors, they have not been gorged, stripped, or disemboweled to the extent that their civic realm is indistinct. It is not easy to maintain an identity in the modern age of global ubiquity. Boston is to America what Melbourne is to Australia: a bit of a modern day anomaly, but central in the identity of its nation.
So, what makes a city American? If it is true that cities are a microcosm for larger truths about humanity, and that we are best able to understand these truths when they are made tactile to us, then it logically follows that we may best be able to discern what is American or Australian by examining the ornament of a particular place. In fact, I am observing that this is what makes Melbourne unique and distinct from its neighbors and Boston as well. Ornament articulates the beauty inherent in a place and thereby gives that place its identity. This does not happen merely through an array of styles, but through application of the universal principles of Classical architecture that have responded and adapted to each project’s complex and subtle array of challenges in its unique place and time. If we remember Alberti’s treatise on the Art of Building, we are reminded that the principal ornament of any city is its order – the siting, layout, composition, and arrangement of its public spaces and buildings – and that the principal ornament of any building is the column, from which local order is derived. In this way, ornament shapes our world: it carries forward the past, gestures toward the future, articulates the spaces we inhabit, and reminds us of our place in the world. Perhaps the Italian writer Italo Calvino said it best in his book Invisible Cities. The city does not tell its past or scream its own name, “but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps … every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
I have photographed some comparative examples of American and Australian ornament, taken from the public spaces and buildings of Boston and Melbourne, and born of the living language of architecture that is rooted in the Classical tradition. (In these photos, Melbourne is always on the left and Boston on the right.) In examining these examples and being mindful of their differences, we may find a renewed sense of what it means to live and build in a particular place and in a particular way, be it America or Australia. We may also ponder what many of our modern cities are lacking. Why is it so rare, for example, to encounter a civic realm with distinction today? Could our understanding and appreciation of ornament help shape the cities of our future? Furthermore, could this ornament order our world in a way that helps us better shape our own reflection and identity?
Just as Alice stepped through the looking glass to find herself examining the most curious details of her reflection, so too am I doing this as an American in Australia. Alice returned to her home with a renewed sense of purpose and maturity. She saw what generated the ornament of her world behind the flat reflection that was so familiar to her, and this changed her. Whether we leave our home to view our reflection from a different angle, or whether we come to understand larger truths about humanity though examining the corners of our streets and gratings of our windows, I hope we soon return to the tradition of building with a renewed sense of identity, purpose, and maturity.