Happy 319,642 New Year

The planet we live on leads a charmed life. Though faced with innumerable threats to its existence, it has managed to survive a few billions year and so have we humans for more than three hundred thousand years. Yellowstone Park is an example of how we’re helped. It’s an actual still active volcano that refuses to erupt while we enjoy its splendor into the distant future. Nature doesn’t do our bidding, but it’s very cooperative.

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park

Scientists and skilled every day researchers are trying to determine when the first human being walked the earth. They think they’re getting closer as the elusive date sems to be ever earlier, over three thousand years ago. What’s impressive, astonishing even, is how a particular species managed to survive over this vast period despite natural disasters – frequently occurring earthquakes and fiercely erupting volcanoes – and manmade ones – endless wars and now a nuclear danger. Yet here we are today in a new year with many of us in relative comfort and even happy. There’s a story to be told.

Threats to be sure, continue to exist, many in the most unlikely places. Appearances can be deceiving. Take Yellowstone Park, for example. This 2.2-million-acre wonder, spreading over draws some four million visitors each year to enjoy its splendid scenery of mountains, valleys, geysers and hot pools for an occasional if somewhat risky dip. Yet they may not know it, but they’re standing on a massive super volcano that sits above an enormous reservoir of molten rock that reaches twelve miles into the earth. It also happens to be still active. With some very acute sensitivity visitors might feel the hundreds of small earthquakes that occur each year.

These are precursors of a cataclysmic eruption that will some day occur. But don’t postpone your visit on account of that. The last eruption took place 600,000 year ago and the next may be ten thousand years in the future. Meanwhile just look out for traffic and bison jams on the narrow roads. What could be a distant nightmare is a current paradise for geologist Paul Doss, who says he can observe rocks three billion of years old and new ones being born.
“I’ve never been any place where geology is more evident or prettier.” 

Yellowstone is typical of where we stand in the universe in the opinion of Bill Dyson in his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” Tragedy abounds, but we are spared. For instance, we are just the right distance from the nourishing sun. Much closer, earth would have boiled away. Much farther out, it would have frozen. Our moon, larger than those of other planets, provides a steady gravitation that keeps the earth spinning at the right speed and angle necessary for a long and successful life. We’re lucky that 4.4 billion years ago a huge celestial object smashed into earth, carving out a separate moon. Creative destruction, to be sure.

Timing is essential, writes Bryson. Anything can go wrong in billions of years. “It seems evident that if you wish to end up as a moderately advanced, thinking society, you need to be at the right end of a very long chain of outcomes involving reasonable periods of stability with an absence of real cataclysm.”

Privileged as we are, we don’t own the universe or are masters of it. Ultimately, it will decide our fate as we seek to learn more about it. In the meantime we can act appropriately within its bounds with a measure of humility and forbearance. No use tearing up what it has built over the ages. We’re not sure exactly when we arrived here. Any number is arbitrary. But we’ll give it a try. Maybe we’ll hit the jackpot. Happy 319, 642 New Year.

Do We Deserve Our Buildings?

An aspect of globalism is the uniformity of our cities. They tend to be identical across the globe with skyscrapers the predominate feature. They’re getting taller all the time, but there’s nothing much to look at on the way up. Beauty of designs is conspicuously absent in these serviceable structures of glass and steel. It’s said that taste and even character are shaped by the buildings in which we work and live. So how do we fare in today’s sameness? Very badly, writes Henry Hope Reed in “The Golden City” a book that was published in 1959 and is getting renewed interest today.

He writes: “Where once the street was crowded with sculptural detail, we are offered a wasteland. Where once towers graced the skyline, slabs now obstruct it.” The reason is that  we’ve abandoned the classical ideal of architecture for a modernism without form or feeling. We have liberated ourselves from what makes architecture worthwhile.

Thomas Jefferson, he writes, set the style. Just as he drew on the Roman past for elements of the new politics of America, so he sought out “Roman taste, genius and magnificence” in architecture. He noted: “There is at Nimes in the south of France a building called  the Maison Carree that has pleased universally for near 2000 years.“ It was to be a model for the Virginia capitol and other estimable works over the years. Just as the past proved essential for the new nation’s politics, so did its architecture.

In his book, Reed contrasts many past buildings with those of the present to show how Jefferson’s advice was ignored in slavery to the new.  It’s almost as if beauty is to be ignored for functionality at all costs. Typical is a picture of the great hall of the Cunard building in New York City designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris in 1921, juxtaposed with a view of the main lobby of the secretariat building of the United Nations designed in the late 1940’s by an international board of architects. Intimacy in the one, anonymity in the other. You want to linger in the one as long as you can, leave the other as soon as possible. And international peace has not been assured.

There are some signs of remedy. The original, much admired Penn Station in New York City was torn down in 1964, a victim to the rage of newness, leading to what the New York Post calls “a subterranean horror show” of congestion. Typically, the city wants to replace it with eight new office skyscrapers at a time of record office vacancies. Instead, architects devoted to New York have offered a plan that would revive the spirit of the vanished station in keeping with the needs of today. The new station would once again be above ground and open to the sunlight through three class vaulted ceilings. An adjoining green park would make it easier to wait for trains. Aside from vastly improving transportation, a reborn Penn could give a lift to a city too often laboring under bad news.