Lewis Mumford, writing about the Brooklyn Bridge, noted that it stood out because it was “a powerful work of the imagination.” Although dismissive of Gotham’s skyscrapers, this aspect is what made the bridge, for Mumford, a landmark. Moreover, it had to move from the imagination to play on the intellect: to be considered, mulled over, and interpreted. On the opposite end of the spectrum, but along the same vein, is the topophiliac response. Yi-Fu Tuan, an eminent geographer, has argued that humans have an emotional response to certain landscapes and structures. Some of those response are genetically driven while others are culturally derived. But the end result is that our emotional responses to what we see set up our memories; our emotions mark or “landmark” our visual input. Others, most notably architectural critic J.B. Jackson and visual studies professor John Stilgoe, have drawn similar conclusions about the vernacular world.
Given those parameters, this past week has produced many landmarks. As both an historian and a carpenter, landmarks tend to follow a specific pattern for me. After spending several years as a union carpenter working on bridge projects, the Brooklyn Bridge provoked a visceral response. While nothing I worked on is comparable to this historic structure, I could imagine building forms and staging, climbing ladders, and walking planks.
I spent many more years building houses, an activity that generated satisfaction and pride. To stand back at the end of the day and survey your work, realizing it may well stand past your life, gave me a sense of fulfillment. That is why the Behr Mansion stood out. Not to disparage architects (but I will a little) it is easy to draw on paper a place, a house. Turning a flat image into a landmark is the work of craftsmen, however. Again: my houses were not in any way along the level of the Behr Mansion. But I could well imagine the skill required to build and the pride the craftsmen took in their work. For me, their stories are not lost.
Such a perspective began to develop when we travelled Sunday night to the Brooklyn Historical Society. As noted in a previous post, a scowling medieval warrior, glimpsed between the leaves, reminded me of my own “warrior.” An emotional response, but one followed by an intellectual query: Why all those “heads”? What were they symbolizing? And how, the builder asked, were they made and fixed to the structure? Those types of questions popped up repeatedly and will be explored more fully in Along the Shore: Landmarks.