Stand at the edge of any city and close your eyes. Now open them. What do you see?
In New York City, the Empire State Building.
In Washington, the Washington Monument.
In Chicago, the Sears (now Willis) Tower.
In Seattle, the Space Needle.
When I stand at the edge of a city, I perform the same action, over, and over again. I close my eyes, open them, and let my gaze sweep along the horizon, pinpointing the tallest structure I can see.
Then click. Snap. I take a picture.
A habit formed long before smartphones entered the equation, it really had to do with wayfinding. Upon entering a new city I would find the tallest building and orient myself according to this artificial origin point. It also became a way for me to frame the city in my mind, a way to look at the city from the perspective of one particular place.
But there’s the rub: perspective. When I was in Paris this spring I thought a lot about this habit, and acknowledged that while it allows for some really beautiful pictures, centering my spatial understanding of a city by the tallest building prevents understanding urban spaces from the ground up. You can miss so much looking down -- the windows, the doorways, the people ... the details.
On a certain level it is the same when you visit a historic site. Historians that look at only one perspective in telling their narrative miss out on developing a view of a richer, truer past.
If you walk in the door and your line of sight focuses on just the art, the landscape, or the furniture, you miss out on the stories and the full texture of place. If you just focus on the stories and the narrative, you miss out on feeling the site come alive through the objects and material culture that come with the building.
So in the end it’s about seeing a place from different perspectives -- which is why I think my habit is, in the end, not such a bad thing. Why? Because after I take in those magnificent structures dominating the skyline, I make sure to stand beneath them, too. Then they look completely different -- a collection of parts that snap together to make whole.
And like the rest of our history, you can’t help but marvel at how it all fits together.
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