Architecture is the most noticeable and descriptive thing about cities. Our first impressions of the places we visit are usually based on the architecture and its location in a space. This is how we judge a place worthy of our attention or not.
In the past few weeks I have been retweeting many different famous places from all over the world. And I have come to think and realize that good, lasting, impressionable architecture- the kind that spans the test of time, the kind that we want to visit and be in- happens where you least expect.
Most people think the best architecture occurs at eye level or at least at street level where the people are. The idea is that it makes the architecture immediately accessible. Often architects and urban planners promote the enhancement of street level architecture as a way of establishing identity and “placehood” for a street or plaza. We can all recall a quaint street in a small town or seaside village that captures our imagination because the buildings were something special. But in my recent travels, and in the tweets that have scrolled through this blog, I noticed that the great iconic architecture of the world- the things we like to travel to and see- happens more often than not up above, in the upper levels of a building.
A Magical Castle
Take, for example, a magical castle: Cinderella’s to be exact. I first came to this realization in Disney World. I was at the Magic Kingdom recently (with the kids) and while I was walking from Liberty Square toward Cinderella’s Castle it occurred to me how barren the street view of the castle actually was. Now if there was ever a company that knew its customers, knew what people want and how they want it, and wants and knows how to make sure it leaves the most positive long lasting impression possible, it’s Disney. But despite the throngs of crowds taking pictures in front of the iconic castle, eye level was actually more or less blank walls. So I asked myself, why?
I spent some time pondering the castle’s blank walls right there at the epicenter of the Disney universe. It’s a castle of course and so a castle has high walls. But it runs contrary to what an urban planner might look for regarding architecture that ignites interest in a place. In architecture and in urban planning blank walls are to be avoided as much as possible (more so in urban planning). There is no better way to “kill” a street than to showcase blank walls. It literally means this street has nothing to offer besides buildings that are esoteric, having turned their backs on the public. Blank walls say to people: move along you don’t belong here. They offer no chance to mingle or dither in a place. They are hostile in that sense. But here they were at the Magic Kingdom, which is certainly the most opposite of hostile and not a dead street.
— citykliks (@citykliks) March 3, 2017
I stared for a while at the castle and then I realized that my eyes kept creeping up to look at the asymmetric towers, windows and details up above… where the beauty was. My eyes constantly floated up to the top in a gentle way, away from the blank walls. It was almost as if the architecture was saying, “No, no, don’t look at me here, look at me up here!” By design, it seems, Disney wants us to look at the castle’s silhouette first and then the details. It is, after all, it’s logo (or maybe its logo is Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland, but the concept is the same). The castle’s upper levels are the most majestic and carry the Disney “dream” message the most successfully than any of the other buildings in all the parks. And there in the Magic Kingdom I realized that the architecture people like to visit is most often aspirational and not really inspirational (despite what people say about traveling to be inspired). Beauty is sought.
We don’t look at Disney’s castle to be inspired. We look at it aspiringly because it’s beautiful. To what do we aspire? For each person that is different, but Disney tells you in no uncertain terms when gazing upon its bastion: “A dream is a wish the heart makes…” and “When you wish upon a star…” Indeed, every time there is a fireworks display above the castle, the team that puts on that show is part of a Disney division called “Wishes”, These messages, consistently and constantly paired with the architecture, make us want something more in life or from life. And all of this is to say that the best architecture is often up above, aspiring to raise people’s awareness of themselves to emulate and be what they see: sometimes noble, sometimes bold, but always beautiful.