Where are our cathedrals?

by Bryan

Thanks to MPdSP, I’ve hooked on to Tony Judt’s memoirs at NYRB (I own an e-subscription, so it’s just as well). In the most recent issue, he writes about riding the railroads around Europe in his youth, in awe of the train stations:

At their best—from St. Pancras to Berlin’s remarkable new central station—railway stations are the very incarnation of modern life, which is why they last so long and still perform so very well the tasks for which they were first designed. As I think back on it—toutes proportions gardées— Waterloo did for me what country churches and Baroque cathedrals did for so many poets and artists: it inspired me. And why not? Were not the great glass-and-metal Victorian stations the cathedrals of the age?

I’ll submit that they were. What do we have now? Certainly not airports, which is a shame because they’re the most obvious choice and the one to which many people I know have clung, tearing at the linoleum for significance in their knowledge and appreciation of O’Hare’s or Hartsfield’s concourse layouts or fast-food options. The emptiness of the airport space has been explored by many people in many forms, most popularly and recently in Up in the Air, despite its messiness. Everyone knows airports aren’t up to the aesthetic challenge of replacing train stations, and simply pointing this out does not make a great film anymore.

Are websites the new cathedrals? It seems that the answer is obviously yes but more obviously no. Certainly the rage engendered by every Facebook redesign would indicate that people have a fondness for the site that extends to the emotional: they think it’s theirs, not to be fucked with. But there’s nothing particularly aesthetically pleasing about it, nor does it function in the same way as a religious cathedral or train station. Those places are transitory by nature; you arrive, appreciate, and leave. In that way, Google would be a better corollary if it was much of a site at all. Facebook, by contrast, is designed like the world’s biggest airport you’d never want to leave — unlike Tom Hanks in The Terminal or that dude at Charles de Gaulle, they want you to live your life there. It keeps you where you are, instead of pushing you out, even if from an overload of wonder.

A friend told me that a professor once told him that the worst thing to do (one presumes as a tourist) was take a photo of the Grand Canyon. By taking the picture, you were absolving yourself of properly recording the memory, and one assumes ruining the view for anyone else who wanted to see it with fresh eyes, like the people who skip the “Scenes from Next Week’s Show”* on Lost.

* My brother and I used to watch the entirety of Beverly Hills 90210 in breathless anticipation of whether there would be “Scenes from Next Week’s Show” after the end credits. We called them “SCENES!” and would jump into the air, fists extended, when they would happen.

Of course, that was more than 10 years ago, and I can take a picture with my free-with-a-2 year plan phone I have now. Which I’ve done to take pictures of many things, my feet included:Also funny signs:

…and never food, but it’s only a matter of time. The point is that I use my camera to document the horribly mundane, or at least the amusing things amongst the horribly mundane ones. I also have pictures of my friend’s sixth-month old baby, which I uploaded and never showed anyone; what was the point? Did I take the picture to avoid paying real attention to her? And were the literally thousands of photos of the Grand Canyon to which my brother had been subjected make him not want to stay for more than three hours, after a treacherous four-hour drive (one way) to get there? And were the pictures I took on that trip the same reason I didn’t feel like I needed to hike into the Canyon on my return trip seven months later? Pushing further, I’ve never been to Westminster Abbey… but I know it from The Da Vinci Code. I’ve walked past Trinity Church hundreds of times, but the inside I know from National Treasure. The worst part is that even if I went inside, I’d still know it from National Treasure. It’s part of something bigger and ultimately aesthetically unspectacular (lower Manhattan), and by no means modern. The vast majority its visitors are running down a checklist, hoping to be awed… which is exactly what I would do if I was visiting. But I’d really be looking for the mundane; I’d think it was really funny, and noteworthy, if someone wrote “poop” on an official-looking sign or something.

In just my home city of New York, there are many structures that ostensibly pass as cathedrals: the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim, Yankee Stadium, the Met, Lincoln Center, the Natural History Museum, the Statue of Liberty, maybe the Tennis Center or Apollo Theater… but none of these are inspiring in the day-to-day, or even in the year-to-year. I don’t know if this is a result of American vacuousness, but if it’s not totally empty, it’s because one structure doesn’t easily top all the others. Everyone can appreciate maybe one of those places more than the other in the way they have their favorite slice of pizza or burger, and they can rhapsodize and intellectualize it all they want… but in the end, all of those discussions are really no different from one another. Awe is fleeting, but not by design.