My friends often tease me about my “nerdy” tendencies. Perhaps one of the most uttered phrases out of my mouth is “did you know…” followed by some obscure fact that will most likely not benefit me in life unless I end up as a contenstent on a game show. I am obsessed with historical fiction, classical music, and probably most profoundly…architecture. I am even writing this from a reading room in the New York Public Library, a building with beauty and gilded charm from another era that we have yet to recreate in the stop-and-go world of the present.
Most people in New York have favorite restaurants or stores. I have favorite buildings. Two, in fact. The first is Alywn Court, a very ornate apartment building located just south of Central Park built in the early 20th century in the French Renaissance style. The second is Walker Tower, in Chelsea. An elaborate residence that is an epitome of Art Decco. Though dramatically different from each other, these buildings have taught me the fundamental importance of looking up. Just like most buildings, they have the most unique features and ornamentation at the top, but very few people realize it. This is where the character lies, and this is what creates the magnificent skyline. Yet, most people don’t look up to gaze at the magic of detail. They live in a city of architectural wonder and possibility without ever noticing the intracies that construct it. In pondering this, it became very clear to me that this is indeed a metaphor for our lives.
Way too often, we live our lives very tunnel-visioned. Focused on the present moment, the current task, or trying desperately to get to our destination, we forget to notice our surroundings. We lose sight of some of the most important detail that envelop us because it is not in our most immediate line of sight. There is beauty in that detail that is fundamental to our existence. The elaborate cornices and quatrefoils that are speckled across the landscape of manhattan don’t mean much to me in my day-to-day existence. I get up, go to work, go to the store, live my life. It is a very matter-of-fact existence. Yet, when I miss these elements, my existence in this city is incomplete. I fail to see the uniqueness that makes up my chosen home and I have a limited scope of understanding of how I fit into this tapestry.
The other day, I was walking down Broadway in the theater district and saw a very overy-the-top design element on a building that I had never noticed before. I turned to my friend and almost naievly asked “has that always been there?” Of course it has, but throughout the past three years of living here, I have been too focused on either getting through midtown as quickly as possible without getting frustrated by a tourist or because I am hungry and trying to get to my sandwich shop to stop and notice. The top of this building, decked out in what I can only describe as “architectural sequins” dramatically contributes to the glitz of the area. It stunned me that I had not ever seen it before. While I am not a fan of this component that looks like it was summoned from the Las Vegas Strip, I appreciate not only the work that it took to create, but also the fact that it is now eye-catching for every time I go to there. It recontextualized the landscape for me.
When we stop focusing on our immediate goals and path, we are able to understand this greater landscape. It is the elements that we don’t often see, the porticos and traceries that enhance our surroundings and help clarify our understanding of the world. In my life, I have had a vision in my head of how life is supposed to turn out and occaisionally have gotten tunnel-visioned on how to get there. I became laser-focused on how to reach my destination and haven’t always looked up. Yet, as sometimes happens in life, I occaisonlly get thrown out of orbit and am forced to see elements and details that somehow I have missed. Recently, I have begun contemplating my own goals and trajectory, personally and professionally. I’ve begun to redefine my sense of the world and how I fit into my surroundings, how I experience the beauty that surrounds me, and how I reciprocally contribute elements of beauty back into the world. As I began to notice my surroundings, I realized that there is greatness in what I have to contribute in ways I have never thought of before.
New adornments construct a different landscape than what was previously known. When you look up, buildings are no longer utilitarian doorways strewn about as you move closer to your destination. People are no longer obstacles that you need to dodge as you attempt to reach your target. But rather, they become integral part of the journey along the way that helps create meaning. They help shift you and occaisionally allow you to change direction to find other beauty that you may have missed before. When you slow down to look up, you create clarity and understanding of your place in the world and the vast possibilities within in. Your environment has changed you, so you in turn can change your environment in this constantly moving and evolving process.
As we begin to say goodbye to the old year and welcome to a new one, my wish for you is to look up. Take a moment to appreciate where you are, the journey that has taken you there, and the beauty of the path ahead of you, even if it is not the one you had planned. Look up and realize that the magic is sometimes just beyond the horizon.