Hello from London, where I'm on Day 3 of vacation. This is my fourth trip to the city, and it's still one of my favorite places in the world. How does this relate to Portland architecture? Only peripherally, although it allows one to see home in new ways.
This afternoon, for example, I was thinking about the scale of Portland, particularly with respect to height and residential buildings. We've gone gaga for thin, tall condo towers in recent years, of course, and I was always one of the people supporting that transformation. No more squatty stump buildings! But the funny thing is, for how huge of a world capitol it is, London does not have many skyscrapers at all, and those that are seem to be offices. Instead, what I see here is lots and lots of row houses and brownstones. We're staying with friends in a neighborhood called Wandsworth Common, just south of the Thames from the central city. Nothing here is taller than three or four stories, yet it feels like they're using space well here because the homes are right up against each other. Each has a small back yard, too. I'd like to see this housing format used more often in Portland. Of course some of our point towers will have brownstones and townhouses at ground level, and we also have the occasional row of narrow-lot homes, but usually those are pretty ugly. How might we learn from London in this respect?
I also had yesterday and today some of my most profoundly moving architectural experiences. Every time in London, the girlfriend and I always make a point of returning to St. Dunston's in the East, a church designed by the great Christopher Wren that was all but destroyed by German bombs during The Blitz of WWII. However, the authorities preserved the outer facade of St. Dunston's, and placed a garden inside. Now, with the church's proximity to the financial district in The City, workers often go and eat there lunch there. It's a wonderful, lovely public space made possible by unspeakable horrors. I've written on this blog many times before of my perhaps somewhat perverse attraction to remnants of destroyed architecture, the ghosts lurking in the rubble and ashes. St. Dunston's isn't perverse at all, but instead defiantly optimistic.
We also came across near the Tower of London a long stretch of the original Roman Wall surrounding the original City of London. Here was this masonry wall built two thousand years ago, and it looks like it was built yesterday. And ironically, it sits in front of a mid-20th Century building with some of the windows boarded up - the wall is in much better shape!
Speaking of the Blitz, we also made our latest return visit to St. Paul's Cathedral, which is quite probably the most breathtaking work of architecture I've ever experienced. I'm at a loss to describe it in great detail - it's pretty late as I write this - but as we were there yesterday I took a different line of attack. Instead of walking all over the church, such as into the crypt where famous English heroes like the Duke of Wellington (of Battle of Trafalgar fame) are buried, or the many secondary spaces, I instead just sat in the main sanctuary under the dome of St. Paul's, where the ceiling is painted not unlike the Sistine Chapel. Just sitting there under this massive space was incredibly profound - and not because Charles and Diana were married there. Most of all, I think of the miracle of how the cathedral was saved from destruction during the war when everything around it was leveled. During the war, there were hundreds of volunteers - many of them architects - who stayed inside St. Paul's all night, even as the bombs were falling, waiting with their hoses and buckets of water to put out fires and explosions. I may crow about historic preservation when buildings like the Rosefriend Apartments are sentenced for death, but I probably won't place myself in front of the bulldozers. It's the efforts of these volunteers during the war that moves me as much as Wren's genius.
Today we also visited the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, also known as Kew Gardens, where there are some astonishing greenhouses - I think at least one is a world heritage site. Imagine a big building in Portland like Union Station, but then pretend it's made almost entirely of glass. They had just about every kind of plant in the world inside these greenhouses, it seemed, but the structure around them captured my imagination the most. Particularly in a gray, rainy climate like Portland, I wish we had more glass-enclosed spaces like these - not necessarily greenhouses, but winter gardens and such. The park being built behind the Fox Tower is a start - I love that there will be a glass covered area there. But in time I'd like to see something glassy in Portland of a grander scale - not even necessarily a building in the traditional sense, but a transparent, light-filled structure where you can gather in the darkest, rainiest months and feel illuminated - both figuratively and literally.
One thing though: as much as I love big important cities like London or Tokyo, I've realized my ultimate preference really is for 'big' cities that aren't quite as big, be it a city like Portland in the US, or European cities like Amsterdam. There's just a little bit less fear and grime, although to give London it's proper due, there's also more of the sublime.