Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Loose Thoughts on Cambridge and Poplar

I had coffee with a friend of mine earlier in the week and at one point in the conversation we were speaking about architecture and, most particularly, the effect older buildings have on people as reminders of the scale of human existence compared to that of humanity or the built environment, the way buildings can act as markers of time.

This can be particularly striking in Cambridge. Entire cities, such as Auckland and Melbourne, have been built and filled with businesses and families from across the world in less than three hundred years; Australia has moved from being a continent of nomadic tribes to a penal colony to an agricultural society through a gold rush to today's country with a flag, with arguments over selling uranium to China, with opinion columns worried about immigration and urban sprawl, with airlines taking you to Asia in one flight and Europe in two... and through all this, even before Australasia was noticed by England, since 1441, my college has been arranging and rearranging buildings. While I've seen the chapel almost every day for the past five months, I continue to feel dizzy when I look at it, at plain buttresses toward the Eastern end alongside those toward the Western end, branded with roses and crowns against the posthumous wishes of Henry VI. In an architecture class a few days ago one of the academics at another college mentioned that in  discussions decisions were made on a grand scale: if something wasn't done now, it could be done instead in a hundred years.

These buildings seem to inject such urgency into everyday life; I'm constantly panicking about being unable to succeed in anything more than a temporary way and certainly many people at Cambridge seem to feel afraid they'll never match their own ambitions. But how can anyone really succeed when they're measuring themselves against buildings Turner painted? It feels somewhat depressing, in Cambridge, not to be made of stone. Nobody seems worried about their life in Cambridge, and I don't really seem to worry about my assignments; I worry instead about what comes after this, about finding a job, about the deterioration of paper and the lack of attention being paid to preserving digital files, about doing something spectacular, about not living to be eight hundred years old...

The point I was originally moving toward, though, is that I find my interest in these buildings is no greater than my interest in more recent buildings, the ones that society doesn't feel quite so intimidated by. I find it fascinating how suddenly tastes shift, that what is a Solution can be a Problem only forty years later, that places that are homes to people, buildings that shape modes of existence, are frames through which one sees the world, rooms in which one learns what life is, can mean very little to broader society, be disposable to governments.