Saturday, October 05, 2019

'Enticing Glimpses of the Life Within'

"A building may appeal for its formal perfection, its harmony of proportion and the grammatical discipline with which it matches part to part. But it may appeal despite lacking those things, by offering enticing glimpses of the life within, intriguing apertures, invitations to enter, to explore, to imagine.”

I’ve grown fond of Houston since we first moved here fifteen years ago. Like many others we came for jobs, not for any intrinsic quality possessed by the city except, perhaps, opportunity. It’s most often a friendly place. A strain of Southern civility –“Yes, ma’am; no, ma’am” – survives. Many streets for block after block, and not only in the tonier neighborhoods, are densely lined with oaks.

Downtown is different. The Houston skyline is a dystopian horror – towering slabs of glass and steel reminiscent of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Such buildings give nothing. They are inert and suggest contempt on the part of architects and developers. One instinctively feels dwarfed and disregarded by their hubris. Visual texture is absent. In the passage at the top, drawn from “Streets with Nooks and Crannies Are Beloved and Endangered,” Roger Scruton suggests an explanation for our discomfort. Visually textured buildings and neighborhoods, humanly proportioned, hint at the humanity within and invite us to enter. Scruton praises the villages and towns of Provence and the Italian Riviera:

“[T]hey abound in doorways, passages and cul-de-sacs; in secret stairs and alleyways. Their walls are punctuated with votive shrines and niches; their windows are encased by architraves and moldings, often squeezed into corners to reflect the winding corridors of the life within. Basements sink away into darkened cubby-holes, and here and there, between the houses, there are sheds and troughs that serve the needs of the invisible gnomes who haunt the place.”

I think of such scenes as Hogarthian or Dickensian, often humble but swarming with life. Even when deserted they suggest the absent tenants. They are literally “storied.” A highly reflective glass box can do no such thing. In The American Scene (1907), Henry James recounts his reaction to first seeing “the multitudinous sky-scrapers” in his native New York City:

“Crowned not only with no history, but with no credible possibility of time for history, and consecrated by no uses save the commercial at any cost, they are simply the most piercing notes in that concert of the expensively provisional into which your supreme sense of New York resolves itself.”

The final poem in Bill Coyle’s first collection, The God of This World to His Prophet (2006), is “Aubade.” Coyle suggests why some man-made surroundings charm us, and implies why others repel:  

“On a dead street
in a high wall
a wooden gate
I don’t recall

“ever seeing open
is today
and I who happen
to pass this way

“in passing glimpse
a garden lit
by dark lamps
at the heart of it.”

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