Monday, February 27, 2012


Growing up, I got used to seeing the U.S. Capitol on the evening news, usually rising majestically behind Dan Rather as he reported on some national crisis or other. Over the years, its domed-and-colonnaded form has assumed almost mythical proportions.  It is, after all, the focal point of what is still the world’s most powerful nation. 

Yet when I finally visited Washington DC in my thirties, I was a little let down to find that the Capitol, too, was a merely-mortal and somewhat tired-looking building--one with crooked light switches, runs in the paint, blocked-up windows, and all the other infirmities of an aging structure occupied and continually modified by humans.  

Of course the Capitol is physically impressive. Yet what really transcends all that marble and mortar is the sum of what’s transpired there during the last two hundred-odd years. Crossing the echoing rotunda beneath the Capitol dome, for example, who could help but recall the grainy TV images of John F. Kennedy’s flag-draped casket at its center? It’s this human record that gives the Capitol its mythical proportions--the cavalcade of people and events, and the traces they leave behind over the passage of decades and centuries. 

That visit made me realize that the real emotional power of man-made structures--even monumental ones like the Capitol--lies not so much in their physical splendor as in the record of human events they represent.

Yet such emotional power isn’t confined to monumental structures like the Capitol. In the New Mexico desert west of Alamogordo, for instance, is a barren spot where you’ll find nothing more imposing than some rusted steel bars and broken concrete jutting from the ground. They are the sole vestiges of a hundred-foot-tall steel tower that was instantly boiled away to vapor by the world’s first atomic bomb.  

“The Gadget”--as the bomb was known by its designers--was exploded atop the tower on the early morning of July 16, 1945.  The cataclysmic fireball, which one observer described as “the brightest light I have ever seen, or that I think anyone has seen,” fused the surrounding desert sand into a sea of glass.

In 1965, a small stone obelisk was built at the exact center of where the tower stood, marking the world’s first Ground Zero. Yet it’s the tower’s ravaged foundations that carry the real emotional force, standing in mute testament to one of the seminal moments in all history--that frozen split-second in which the atom’s terrible power was first unleashed on humankind. 

But better to conclude with a more upbeat example: Your house. No doubt you remember the day you moved in--how slightly odd it felt hanging your clothes in an unfamiliar closet, and stowing your Bisquick in a stranger’s cupboard. Yet every event that’s transpired there since that day has served to strengthen your ties to the place. However humble its physical structure might be, its emotional importance is, in its own way, monumental.  

Whether we’re talking about the U.S. Capitol, Trinity Site, or your house, the emotional power of place springs, not just from what we see, but from everything we’ve come to know.

Monday, February 13, 2012


A while back, I happened to catch a popular radio host discussing some guy in Florida who’d painted his house in his old fraternity colors--purple and gold.  Predictably, the man’s neighbors were up in arms.  

Now, as offensive as a purple-and-gold house might sound to you, hearing the way the talk show host carried on about it was worse.  It was an outrage, he declared in so many words, that people could simply paint their houses any color they pleased, and by golly, there should be a way to stop them from doing it.  It was a classic argument for the Taste Police.  

The talk show host’s callers threw an even feebler light on the matter.  With barely-masked disdain for “ethnic” color preferences, they gleefully ridiculed other people who, God forbid, had painted their houses orange or pink or electric blue.
At best, this sort of thinking is provincial.  At worst it’s just plain racist.  America’s demographics are changing, and along with many other things that belong in the dustbin of history is the idea that Caucasians have some sort of monopoly on defining good taste for everyone else. 

In any case, the whole idea that there are “tasteful” architectural colors is utter nonsense, as even the most cursory survey of architectural history will attest.  The architecture of much of the Mediterranean and Asia, to mention just the obvious examples, is beloved for its vibrant use of color.  How is it, then, that when these same hues appear on homes in the world’s most multicultural nation, they suddenly become “tasteless”?  

What’s more, if strident color schemes are so offensive, why is it permissible for, say, a huge Swedish retail chain to paint their colossal stores in the most galling blue-and-yellow color scheme imaginable, while an individual who paints his house in those colors is seen as some sort of threat to the public order?  

Some towns are so mortified by the idea of vivid color schemes that they actually specify the range of colors people can use on their own homes.  Surprise, surprise--the allowable “tasteful” colors just happen to reflect the sedate color preferences of Northern Europeans. 

Would you tolerate a law that dictated what color clothes you could wear in public?  Or what color car you could park in your driveway?  If not, why would you tolerate a regulation dictating what color you could paint your own home?  After all, your taste in clothes, cars, or houses comes down to the same thing--a highly personal choice.  

The usual tiresome Taste Police response to this assertion goes something like, “Well, if I have to look at my neighbor’s purple house all day, it’s infringing on my personal right to a tasteful environment.”  

It’s an argument that doesn’t hold water, because there’s no such thing as an objective standard of taste--one person’s tasteful is another person’s awful, and that’s that.  In other words, the neighbor may well find a beige house just as offensive. 

Whether other people find our favorite colors tasteful or awful, we still have a perfect right to express them, be it through our clothes, our cars, or our homes.  If preserving that right for myself means tolerating my neighbor’s purple-and-gold house, so be it.  It sure beats having the Taste Police make my choices for me.