A Valentine to Place

Our resident curmudgeon’s annual ode to all things good and true.

Ah, true love. Rare and fickle, but not optional—at least not this once a year. Every February for an eternity now (or since 2003), I set down brickbats, check grudges, cleanse my mind, and—eyes shut, ears plugged tight—declare an amnesty on biting (read: honest) remarks. Time has rolled recklessly by and here I am again, holding fire to clear the skies for Cupid’s flight.

The most stubborn and patient among you will recall that last year I was grounded—blame the rigors of my ever-pimped book (just out in paperback, by the way)—and the Valentine was a bittersweet catalog of regret: sights not seen. This year, released from those labors, I have been able to gallivant, increasing by such travel the chance to fall in love. But though my aging heart was set aflutter by a few distinct things (the new little iPod, the America’s Cup fleet in a gale), and even a few buildings (I’m certain—no, really—I’m sure…), it is rather whole places this year, near and far, that earn the bouquets.

City of broad shoulders! Hog butcher to the world! Delight in its slogans aside, I’ve always been a Chicago skeptic. So much city and so little street life. How was it possible? And yes, I’d visited in the summer. This year—during a March trip no less—I finally got it, falling in line with everyone else: the quality of the architectural aggregate puts it in that terrible category of “world-class cities.” Shacked up in an Ian Schrager knockoff hotel, I started to enjoy the neutron-bomb quality of the place. Maybe it was the view: the Marina City Towers, so perfect and weird; some stray Mies HQ; a patch of riverside emptiness that will soon see Donald Trump’s latest erection; even (especially) the manufactured river itself, direction famously reversed and lined by that infrastructure-lovers’ candy box, twisting bi-level Wacker Drive. Where a double-decked bridge crosses, it’s so beautiful I can’t look. And then there’s Raymond Hood’s competition-winning Tribune Tower—a good thinking problem. Why, again, is faux Gothic, albeit well proportioned and wondrously buttressed on high, somehow worse in the persistent dogma than Eliel Saarinen’s only slightly less quotation-heavy second-place design? The Hood building has more crannies for roosting angels.

Austin Tappan Wright’s endless 1942 novel Islandia tells the story of an American envoy sent to open up a nation of that name, a mountainous and tenaciously traditional land on a lost coast of a lost continent on the far side of the world. Naturally he is seduced by the place. Just as some have to work to get past all the sounding and flensing in Moby Dick, Islandia is unreadable if you don’t like sailing (every sail and sheep’s bend of our hero’s journey is described). But there’s an equal store of romantic ideas for buildings and cities, veering to the green (oh god, it really is a special month). The Islandians live in park-roofed pueblos by the sea; the countryside is a perfect Frank Lloyd Wright–meets-Ryoanji fantasy of ma-nipulating the land. Sprawl haters will find a lot to love here.

Las Vegas
What happens in Hartford stays in Hartford? No. If every city in the country were to throw good taste to the wind, ignore certain defeat by an angry sun, falsify its very soul, and peddle itself in alternate decades as a family getaway and a haven for vice, we might protest. But it’s nice to have one.

Los Angeles (via The Island)
One thing I always like, even during those other 11 months of the year, is a little near futurism. Blade Runner, sure, but that’s just the beginning; Sci-fi is just so much more enjoyable when you can leave your disbelief unsuspended. Which brings us to The Island. The movie received mixed reviews (I saw it twice), but leave niceties of acting and script aside for a second: The movie’s downtown Los Angeles scenes were the best and most satisfyingly nasty depiction of a believable American futurescape since Minority Report. Though I didn’t buy the flying trains.

Every place is part of some country, right? Even Antarctica is divided up into pie-shaped claims. The ocean, of course, is an exception; that’s one reason we still get to enjoy the occasional report of piracy. But inside an imaginary line agreed to by international compact—about 12 miles offshore in most cases—a nation owns its territorial seas. Which makes the case of Peberholm all the more wonderful. The 2.5-mile-long island—built as a transition between the tunnel and bridge components of the Oresund crossing—sits in that narrow sound between Denmark and Sweden, a little more toward the Danish side, so there should be no question of sovereignty. I got a chance to walk around there last summer with a representative of the company, eager to show the press how the raw island was being taken over, Surtsey style, by pioneering biota. “Which country are we in?” I asked. “Denmark or Sweden?” After a second of confusion he answered: “Neither. This is a corporate island.” Off the map. It was chilling. And very cool.

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