Sunday, February 6, 2011
Yesterday my wife and I set out to see the Impressionism exhibit at the Speed Museum. It was a cold, dreary day, and looking at the magnificent outdoor scenes through the softened eyes of Monet and Pissarro seemed a good antidote to winter weather. On the way, we deviated from the direct path to look at the Dead Block Walking of the so-called Iron Quarter along Louisville's Main Street. We both expressed our consternation that a visionless dunderhead should hold the fate of such wonderful structures in his greedy hands. But he was aided and abetted by the newly elected Mayor of Louisville, so what could we do about it other than grouse? So, on to the museum.
While enjoying the paintings, the image of the buildings at the Iron Quarter drifted through my head as I realized that these artifacts on the wall before me, from the late 19th Century, are contemporaneous with many of the built artifacts slated for demolition.
A common theme of many of the paintings, at least to me, is the harmony of man and his environment. Field workers are shown drawing sustenance from the earth in an idealized vision. While right here in River City at the same time the earth's bounty was forged and shaped into structures to help that city grow and prosper. Both the paintings and the buildings are the valuable product of a time when talent, skill and sweat were dedicated not simply to function, but to the outward expression of an inner desire to bring beauty into daily life. Those statements are real and have stood the test of time. Those expressions should be allowed to speak to us today and to our children tomorrow, rather than grace landfills with their erstwhile beauty.
To give Louisville's mayor his due, he has crafted a solution to the impasse over the Iron Quarter which might save the facades of the structures. Such a tepid half measure is equivalent to placing a loved one's bleached skull on the mantelpiece to preserve and recollect "that lovely smile". It truly only reminds us of what we've lost.
While the decision to raze the significant concentration of iron-front buildings in Louisville jeopardizes the city's claim to be the "number two repository of iron facaded buildings in the U.S.", behind only New York, a much larger place, by the way. The razing allows our neighbor's riverfront to make room for more structures like the arena, which from the Clark Bridge to me, seems to resemble nothing so much as an answering machine or perhaps a wireless router.
And what of those who came before, and those who will follow? Do we stand arrogantly in the now to say that we will erase what has been, because we promise something aesthetically superior? Do we lack the skill and the imagination to take what our forebears have left us and keep it well, while building our own for those who follow us? Do we follow the dictates of good stewardship, both historic and environmental? Or, do we simply replace, because that is what we do to shuffle money around?
Gazing at the dreamy scenes hung on museum walls, I was struck by the fact that what we see there is static. It is a beautiful snapshot produced by skilled hands, it represents an impression filtered through what we now might see as a loving eye. While stasis is not possible, nor even desirable, can't we filter what we do today through a more loving eye to enrich tomorrow?
If one wonders what does this have to do with New Albany it is this: while Louisville, owing to its sheer size versus New Albany may have more extant structures of architectural significance, the same forces which treaten architectural treasures in Louisville threaten what we have left in New Albany. In fact, because New Albany has a smaller cache of significant structures and neighborhoods, it is even more important to look upon those buildings and areas with a loving eye.
Painting: Hay Makers Resting by Camile Pissarro