Tag Archives: architecture

Little Big City

Imagine my surprise when fellow high-school classmate and garage band musician Aaron Shekey was mentioned in John McPhee’s latest essay for The New Yorker. McPhee quoted Shekey’s own essay from a few years ago called “It’s What You Leave Out”, about the curious case of the Madison skyline. “One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown,” Shekey wrote, “is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet.”

This mandate, now 100 years old, is still in place, leaving us with a skyline a Madisonian who was around at the time of the edict’s passing would still recognize.

It’s a view I’ve grown used to, even bored of, having lived there until I left for college. But when I compare it to other lakeside skylines I’ve come to know, like Chicago’s, where even with the Sears Tower there is no clear focal point or guiding architectural principle except how high the buildings can reach and how many condos they can cram into the air space, I see the value of the Madison experiment—the “century’s worth of restraint” as Shekey called it. You could almost call it a civic humility, thought that’s not quite right. Not when the capitol building, the literal civic center, is the legally mandated center of attention.

madison-map

A bird’s-eye view tells the same story: the Capitol sits in the middle of the downtown square, in the middle of the isthmus that splits the lakes Monona and Mendota. You could loop around the Capitol all day on the one-way streets that revolve around it. And that’s OK, because it’s a beauty. Shekey again: “If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.”

I suppose it makes sense the center of government should be the nucleus of the city, the standard by which everything else is judged and modeled. But one person’s civic restraint is another’s stunted growth. Chicago is a storied architectural wonder (I’d highly recommend taking an architectural boat tour if you can), but that wouldn’t have been so if after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city planners had imposed a vertical quota on the Loop.

When I tell people I’m from Madison, they often ask what it’s like and how I liked it. If they’re familiar with the area I tell them I’m actually, like Shekey, from the western suburb of Middleton, though I was born and raised in Madison through elementary school. But if they’re unfamiliar, I say it’s a typical college town: liberal (in Madison’s case very much so), lots of bars and bikes, and has lots to see around it if you know where to look.

I also like to call it a “little big city.” Like any big city it has a bustling downtown with distinct neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, but it’s no Chicago or even Milwaukee. Driving on University Avenue through the Isthmus you can get from the westside of town to the east in 15 minutes if the stoplights and traffic are friendly. Besides the capitol building itself, the biggest things about Madison are the lakes it’s squeezed between—and the world renowned farmer’s market during the summer.

I’m sure Madison has “little big” friends in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg, Missouri’s Jefferson City, Washington’s Olympia, and other cities: state capitals that aren’t their state’s biggest city. They don’t have the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Seattle, but they have beautiful capitol buildings visitors like me would love to see. This is even true in Washington D.C., where the U.S. Capitol, larger but almost identical to Madison’s pillared dome, sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall and the much smaller yet more iconic White House.

It takes high regard for the built beauty of one’s own place to preserve the arrangement Madison has over a century of constant change. Perhaps one day Madison’s glass (or ice) ceiling will shatter and the capitol dome will shrink into a much taller skyline than it’s accustomed to. But until then it will remain a little big city with a little big horizon that ain’t bad to come home to.

(Photo by Steve Wetzel)

The Holy Sanctuary of Public Libraries

As a reference librarian at a suburban public library, I sit at the information desk, waiting to answer patrons’ many different questions. On Friday evenings, the foot traffic slows and a soothing silence descends on my area. Save the soft clattering of the keyboards in the computer lab, it is mercifully quiet. It’s in these moments I realize: I’m in a holy place.

As civil institutions funded mostly by taxes from the people they serve, public libraries are strictly secular. Patrons can use their space and resources for whatever cause, without regard for politics, religion, race or any other category. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as secular. Writing for Think Christian last year, Caryn Rivadeneira made a similar point about the beauty of art museums:

Perhaps it had something to do with the grandeur of the space. Certainly it had something to do with being surrounded by centuries’ worth of wondrous examples of image-bearing creativity. Definitively it had to do with being drawn into works that speak a mystical language, that communicate through brush-strokes or film or clay and yet speak from the artist’s heart to the viewer’s.

When I look around the library on quiet Friday nights, I see the place itself as holy. I see a cathedral of books, each one comprising a distinct identity and yet functioning as one small part of the larger body. I became much more aware of the library as a place after reading Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons, a photographic essay documenting public library buildings all over America. The libraries in Dawson’s photographs range from a one-room wooden structure built by former slaves in California to the imposing, Romanesque Revival-style Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania to the sleek, futuristic Central Library in Seattle. Whether old or new, deserted or bustling, each of these buildings, like the books they contain, tells a unique story.

Considering the uncertain state of public libraries today, I can’t help but see their challenges running parallel with those of the American church. Both institutions, rooted in history but now confronted with modernity, are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation. They hear the same critical buzzwords thrown at them: outdated, unnecessary, old-fashioned, dull. They are debating internally how to attract young people and the unconverted, how to revitalize their diminishing influence amidst cultural and digital revolutions and how to make their missions feel essential in a world abounding with choices.

But above all, I see them both as sanctuaries—havens for world-weary patrons and all their baggage. I’m sure a pastor could sympathize with the variety of interpersonal issues public librarians navigate gracefully every day. I’ve had people approach me looking for books about divorce, STDs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for ways to track down someone who wronged them. But I’ve also retrieved books on weddings, suggested new reads to eager patrons and even helped a woman find an image of, in her words, a “whimsical walrus.” Many people, some with mental disabilities, simply want to talk. This often requires an abundance of patience; when there are a dozen other things you could be doing, choosing to serve a patron in need suddenly becomes the most challenging one. But extending grace on the frontlines of humanity, whether in the pews or in the stacks, is a challenge worth taking.

As a librarian and a believer, I see the struggles of libraries and churches up close. I also see their beauty—as institutions attempting to serve the greater good; as places of study, searching and refuge; and as living archives of our shared cultural experiences. These places can transform us if we let them. All we have to do is walk through their doors and take a look around.

Originally posted at Think Christian.