Can Architecture Provide Solace to the ‘Eternal Now’?

Under our current president, it seems we don’t care, or don’t know how to care, about history. Can our historical buildings help us survive this collective malaise?

I have become a news addict. I watch cable TV at night. Before sunrise, I read newspapers and magazines on my iPhone. I grow increasingly morose with each mean-spirited and uninformed Twitter flurry that often originates from the White House. That location alone should make the president grasp the honored lineage of his position while respecting our democracy’s storied evolution, as well as the citizenry he is supposed to serve.

During one of my news binges, I heard a phrase that explained our collective malaise. We are living, as one pundit put it, “in the eternal now.” We don’t care, or don’t know how to care, about history. The intellectual roots that once supported our respect for the continuum of the human experience have been left to rot. The tree of knowledge has crashed to the ground.

When our commander in chief refers to history, he treats it as nostalgia for better times. Take, for instance, the issue of bringing jobs back to the U.S. This fantasy pretends that it’s possible to revive the massive factories of America’s First Industrial Revolution. He shows no awareness of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as Nina Rappaport writes, which has changed “our relationship to production through digital and advanced fabrication technologies,” leading to small-batch production as well as clean and often quiet factories, among other significant changes.

As I struggle to break free of my own “eternal now,” I walk into Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913. The spirit of this place has survived near destruction and several renovations. The grand Beaux Arts hall with its perfect acoustics is teeming with commuters. As I watch the crowds in their flawless progress to and from their trains, I think of the time when rail travel was romantic, when architecture with its grand dimensions expressed hope for the future, when the decorations and materials told a story of imaginative design and skilled artistry. For a moment, this glorious room connects me with another time. And here I make a promise to myself: I will attempt to regain my sanity by visiting historic buildings whenever I hit other “eternal now” moments.

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