The Lessons of Place – A Quest for Restoration
02 Apr, 2010 - Rebecca Horton
When is the last time you walked into a place and breathed out a nice, long “ahhh?” Was it a coffee shop? Maybe your favorite restaurant? A corner bookstore or local club?
One of my favorite spots is a little local restaurant on the coast of North Carolina that serves up top-notch gourmet food and excellent dining advice from its well-educated staff. The windows are elegantly draped with white curtains and the lighting is low. Only a handful of folks can fit into the restaurant at a time and large groups are rarely found in the somewhat-tight quarters. Those who dine in this space sometimes linger for hours over crème brulee and a cup of coffee, simply enjoying one another’s company. I fondly recall early college visits there with my grandparents, savoring succulent meals and wonderful conversation.
I am fascinated by the concept of place, what places can do to us, and how they mold and shape our perceptions of reality, our hopes, and our dreams. Further, I am intrigued by how the homes we build, the spots we visit, and the towns where we do our bidding, end up making us a certain kind of people. In some form or fashion, the places where we live and the places that we visit, influence the way that we choose to engage the world around us. They can also serve as an outpouring of our inner longings.
Back when I lived in the D.C. metro area, I was a frequent visitor at the United States Botanic Garden, located just on the edge of the National Mall. I’d often wander over on a Saturday morning after a particularly tough week at work or if I just needed to think through some things for a while. Entering into this massive building with huge translucent walls, I was always mesmerized by the succulent aromas and enraptured by the spectacular “decor.” At every turn of the head, there were patches of rich green foliage, brilliantly colored florae, and intricately patterned plants. As I moved from room to room, the cares of my week would melt away in the beauty that surrounded me, and I would find my restless heart brought to a place of stillness and awe. A small pond with bright green lily pads would beckon me to delight and enjoy. And a towering balcony in an immense rainforest-like room, featuring creeping greenery and bursting buds, encouraged me to watch and wonder. This place simultaneously invigorated and calmed my spirit, and in the process touched some of my deepest parts. In many ways it was, and still is, a breathing thesis of how a well-designed space can stir the human spirit.
On another note, there was also a space located in the D.C. suburbs that I often longed to see made over. Just down the block from my old townhouse, it was right on the edge of Old Town Alexandria, about a ten-minute walk from the metro. This particular building was located in what many residents still considered a “transitional area.” Only a few years ago, the surrounding street was home to rampant violence and drug-dealing. Quite rapidly, though, young families and retirees have bought up its houses and flipped them. Here, backyard piles of dust and weeds were being dug up and turned into patio spaces for winter firepit gatherings and late-summer tapas tete-a-tetes. In the process, Alexandria was gentrifying, a change that in some ways one can view as both good and bad. The old was going, the new was coming – a process that always involves a give and take.
The place that always caught my eye was this little shop on the end of my block. A prime location for a great local coffee shop or café, with big windows and a double-corner view, it was only blocks from the heart of King Street. Abandoned by an owner who was not yet prepared to part with it, this space was a reminder of the old habits of the area’s prior community that was hesitant to catch up with the coming changes. This shop stood as a reminder of the not-so-ancient past that in many ways the city’s new residents would rather forget than reclaim. Per the neighborhood chatter, although the owner regularly put money into making minor improvements, he was still not willing to sell his shop to the swarm of incoming developers, hanging on to it perhaps for a golden deal or maybe for the sake of bittersweet memory.
As I think back to this space now, I realize that the process of re-cultivating a place and infusing it with new life is not always easy or well-received, and it is sometimes long and arduous. Often those who come in the name of progress would do well to learn the stories of the spaces that they purchase before bulldozing them to build the next big thing. Simultaneously, the world longs to see old things made new, and the revitalization of urban landscapes can be a powerful means of exhibiting beauty and grace.
Daily we are touched by both the ugliness and the beauty of the places that surround us. And yet, the process of understanding and interpreting a place and making it rich and welcoming is often easier said than done. As we come to grips with this notion of place, the words of Alain de Botton encourage me to go deeper and keep probing:
It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.
To one effect, the world that surrounds us is crumbling, even as we run our fingertips across its surfaces. To another, it is constantly being renewed by the work of designers, artisans, and architects who share a vision for restoration through expressions of beauty. Perhaps in some ways by knowing the ugly, we have a new appreciation for beauty. But in knowing the beauty, we long to behold what is not yet fully realized.