I'm writing this from Edinburgh, Scotland, where Valarie and I arrived yesterday in a trip bookended by London. For the past several days we've been touring one historic building after another, from St. Paul's Cathedral to Edinburgh Castle. We have been absolutely awed by the scale, the craftsmanship, and the sheer ambition of such places, virtually to the point of tears in some cases. But something Valarie said today has the wheels in my brain churning.
Is it possible that these old cities are burdened by historic architecture as much as they are blessed? Walking down the Royal Mile here in Edinburgh or along Charing Cross Road in London, the urban fabric is dominated by structures hundreds of years old. Of course old buildings must be preserved, so as to maintain the connection amongst the generations, and also simply because the architecture itself is often so impressive and solid and enduring. Valarie wondered how in places like this a contemporary identity can possibly be shaped. We walked past the new Scottish Parliament, for example, and it was an exceptionally bold, postmodern take on history, with windows shaped like what seemed to be axes and fencing that aped old trees. So even this striking modern structure was only riffing on the past.
I think one thing to keep in mind is that we've been visiting the very center of these cities, and if we were to venture further out we would find not only fewer tourists, but more urban spaces and places that are of today. But I also think that modern architecture can't seem to forge a solitary identity like the old buildings seem to. Today's contemporary buildings are widely varied in style, and I think most regular people (who aren't architecture geeks like me) have never come to fully embrace the sleek forms and clean lines of contemporary buildings. My least favorite kind of architecture is faux-historic, modern buildings that imitate old ones. But I think that, especially with houses, this is what most people prefer.
One unique aspect of Edinburgh reminds me that it needn't be an either-or proposition. We have happened upon more than one structure that was originally built as a church some hundreds of years ago, but has since been transformed into a different kind of space. Just before coming to the internet cafe from which I am writing this post, I was at a restaurant having an espresso in what used to be an old church. And yesterday one of the biggest churches we saw, its spire topping out over the skyline, is now not full of pews and bibles but rather is a theater and performance space. It seemed a little weird at first, but the more I think about it the more I like it. When buildings are adapted over time for new uses, it seems to me they become newly relevant. Edinburgh probably doesn't need a church on every block any longer. Today, for better or worse, commerce and the arts are a kind of religion in their own right. Yet we needn't tear down a great building if it can take on new life -- I think even God doesn't mind seeing the occasional house of worship form a new identity as long as it is done as nobly as possible. After all, it's a far better tribute to the past than a building that pretends to be something it isn't.