Any proper dinner requires company. This is fact. But the best of dinners require even further. Truly exceptional company. And, of course, desirable food, suitably mediating the differences between mere sustenance and upscale delicacy.
I would like to think my dishes appropriately in between. First there will be hors d’oeuvres. Three platters full, sprinkled throughout the living room, open to all as guests continue to trickle in during the dawn of the night. Taleggio flatbread in one corner. A robust assortment of spicy pecans and tamari maple roasted almonds in another. And finally, an array of scallops. Recently grilled, with the main course, and hugged by a sizzling prosciutto wrap.
Something rang. A lovely little peppered rhythm. I danced herbal garnish across a number of lemon-seared fish fillets, shuffling around a granite isle. The help would answer the door. Amidst my portioning of rosemary soaked parsnip bits and carrot wedges, the chimes rang again, and it dawned upon my meager mind that I had no help. I dropped the roots and ran through from room to room.
The first to arrive were gardeners. Following their entry was an assortment of neighbors, and behind them an even larger party of people. A salesperson, bakers, my seamstress, a banker, a socialite by the name of Viv, some children, the parents of said children, an author, politicians, two artists, three men all named John, and one of the local grocers. With care and elation, I shook each hand that passed through my door. The guests melted dans ma maison. I tossed seasoned nuts at their faces and slipped chilled shrimps into their pockets. A technician, a journalist, my friends Sebastian Stacey Sandra and Sam, a furniture designer, some businessmen, four nurses, some businesswomen, and cousins I distantly knew filed in sporadically. In the sitting room my tailor entertained a group of schoolteachers. One of the Johns occupied the entryway into the kitchen, where four rosy apples spun in circles from his juggling hands. The children laughed and jeered. My cousin, Pamela, playfully picked a pear to toss into the show.
With great haste, I hurried the halibuts out and about, serving each guest une entrée before the proper meal. Our banter turned juicy as lemon grease leaked across the plates. A baker began a story, and I could hear my dear friend Lucy amuse Viv with gossip while they ate. I watched two parents pour a child a glass of wine. Witnessed Sebastian spittle out his fish while Reuben wooed one of the writers who was, to the best of my knowledge, not publicly considered light in the loafers. The collective silverware tanged my collection of ceramic and china dishes. I glided through the rooms, surrounded within their cacophony of chatter. My living area resonated raucously. The sun room cracked with laughter, and from the savory conversations had in the dining space, I knew it to be le temps pour le plat principal. Out came my trays of finely marbled and tenderly cooked loins. Loins of all kinds. Beef and pork and lamb. Their seasoned and seared skins decorated with leafy greens and exotic fruits, bathed in a caramelized liquor dressing, slowly melting throughout the dish from the heat. Some of my guests applauded, a few hollered a hail from here or there, others simply stared, too excited to speak. The businesspeople tucked napkins into the crevice of their collars. Women broke from conversations and opened more bottles of wine. I supplied chardonnays, cabernets, marsannes, and malbecs. My cousins assisted as I served the cuisine.
There was only one musician present in our midst. Viv squealed across the tables, her flush face wanting for a melody. A man across the hall echoed her requests, and delirious heads, mouths full of food, nodded in unison. The women wanted romance, the men a more thoughtful tune. Bakers fancied the sweeter songs, while the nurses and lawyers clamored for reverential refrains. I watched the scene unfold. Observed the children pull at their mother’s blouses, asking if the man would play. A glimpse of the artists showed arms softly swaying in the air to nonexistent jingles. A pair of lovers in the corner whispered lyrics to a track I had yet to hear, and sounds of the city harmonized with our banter from beyond the confines of my home. I stood up, waved my hand, and announced preparations pour le dessert et le café. Viv beamed. John clapped his hands. Adeline’s laughter filled the room while Ricardo and Victor drummed my wooden tables. Sepora and Sam embraced in elation. Gardeners grinned, the widow wept, and a priest made peace with his Lenten obligations. Children danced in circles, parents patiently waiting, and the Johns sat me down while my relations fetched my instruments. I asked for strings, some brass, pipes, drums, and other things. A friendly neighbor reminded me of the grand, but I sent the butcher in search of my organ instead. L’ensemble whistled et pulsé as it marched throughout the rooms, the beginning of an opus I had yet to write. Rosy cheeks scooped one on top of another filled l‘espace autour de moi, their puddled faces drunk on my malts and liquors. I plucked a string. Les cœurs fondirent. I piped my flute. Les têtes inclinèrent. I strummed a chord of keys, and their pastry bodies crumbled into heaps. Sympathy for symphony. Mon digestif.
I am a restless fool. I watch my Father in his heavenly shop decorate and sculpt my brothers and sisters. He carves Ruth’s eyes until they glisten and shine. He lacquers David’s crown and brushes the hair of a lowly ass. We are an inexpensive bunch. I often dream of what life lies beyond my shelf, but Father will have none such nonsense. What good is a toy if not to be played? “You must wait for the seasons to change,” little ragdoll Anne says. Her wooden words are soothing in a house that rings hollow with the hobbies of another.
I was once Father’s pride and joy, he told me so as he was painting the hair on my head. His rough and callous hands pinched my arms and twined metallic wire in the grain of my limbs. He placed me on a shelf above the rest from which I chose to reign. The prodigal king of puppets, figurines, and other childish playthings.
He crafts a castle, but the curtain that might soon fall is not for me. My tag, once penned as priceless, now bears a label of value. Younger, passing eyes do not see such things, and Anne and Ruth and I preoccupy our time mystifying stories of the lives they must live. We play games as well, to pass time until snowfall.
Once, in the late hours of night, I slipped from my mantle and crept about the shop. A muddled canvas revealed the château, tucked away from our prying eyes. I wrapped my frame around a large horsehair brush, and cumbersomely dabbed my name on one of its walls. Red and orange and yellow paint dripped across the table. My feet left lush trails to follow as I wobbled back.
After our maker saw what I had done, he was displeased. Now I share company with a new toy. A watchful, inanimate lion. His eyes survey my shelf at the old man’s request, whose presence in our toy town slowly begins to fade. The gesture of grievance puts my restless faith at bay.
The seasons change and pass. White dust coats our warm and cheery palettes. The lion’s lids flutter and fall. Ruth leaves in the arms of a little girl, and idly I pass time staring at the heap beneath the canvas where my brightly colored name is scrawled on the side. I am patient now. Our shop’s light falls low. Father is gone, and calmly I wait for my kingdom to come.
For as long as we could remember, the Earth had rings.
* * * * *
The hard, cracking noise of scattering rocks reverberated off the tor. Seemingly pleased with her results, Jezebel effortlessly kicked one more, sitting down on the cold granite slope to the stone’s fading echoes. Jezebel – Jes, as she preferred – stared aimlessly at the forest scene beneath her, just beyond the dumb-hearted scene of the fools she called classmates ardently studying geometries on monolithic rocks by the tor’s edge. She knew she should be doing work as well – it was the purpose of the trip after all – but the rocks, god the rocks, they just seemed so boring. Another scuttle of rocks slipped down the incline, and Jes could feel the presence of her friend, Kalilah standing behind her.
“Beautiful, ain’t it?”
Jes scoffed. “What, the Link? Or Timmy Penton in hiking gear?”
“Both, I guess,” Kalilah responded. “Believe it or not, I was actually talking about the Link.”
With a sigh, Jes directed her gaze towards the waning dusk horizon, brightly illuminated by nothing more than a sharp pillar of light stemming from the wilderness beneath them. She had never been this close to a Link before, and could actually begin to make out the intricate patterns of structure holding the unit together. It reminded her of those archaic transmission towers people had scattered across the globe. People were so silly back then, with their wires. But there were no wires attached to the Link. Up and up it stretched; thinner and thinner; brighter and brighter, until its blinding connection with the Meridian - a second, arcing beam of light warped around the globe – far above the granite tor Jes sat upon now. The crescent sliver of Delta Luna seemed incomparable.
“Can we go visit the base of the Link? Why the hell do we have to study rocks up here?” Jes complained.
“Bleh. There’s nothing interesting about a Link up close and in person.” Kalilah said, lying down beside Jes. “It’s just a pretty night light in the sky, nothing more.”
“It grows all our food.”
“So did farmers, once upon a time.” Kalilah replied with disinterest. “Don’t think folks back in the day made trips out to boring work like that.”
Groaning, Jes stretched out to kick another rock, throwing her arms towards the base of the Link engulfed by trees out before them. “Farms didn’t look like, well, that either!”
The two friends sat quiet for a moment, free from the echoes of rocks and the discussions of other classmates – now fixated with the greater rock monuments higher up on the tor behind them.
As the sun vanished beyond the horizon and the wilderness took on a purer, white-ish glow, Kalilah worked herself up. “Rocks are our future, J. Not potatoes. Now come on, get up. We have the rest of the herd to analyze.”
As Kalilah turned and hiked back up, more bits and pieces of rock stumbled down. Snatching one, Jes stood up in turn, tossing the rock up and down in her hand, watching the white-washed light dance across the sparkling granite surface. In one swift motion, Jes launched her projectile out into the distance, the Link in her line of sight. The eventual clunk of stone on wood was all she heard.
Pssh. ‘Rocks are our future.’ She thought derisively, turning around to follow.
The granite tor stretching above her shimmered just as the small rock in her hand had, the Meridian curving gracefully in the sky above to meet the circus of pink boulders at the apex of the peak. Elephants aside, Jes stood alone, the ghosts of her classmates solely present in their lackluster geological deliberations on the other side of the site. Jes hesitated, making one last turn to gaze at the eerie pillar off in the distance. She was so close. So very very close. Her mother used to tell her about the Link base out in New Chicago.
“There’s nothing quiet like that continuous glow.” She would say. “On all the time I take it, whenever I walked down the block. Brightest block in the city. The growers, the cultivators – agrarians, they liked to be called, but you and I both know they’re just pointless potato people - lined up at the base, ready to start their six month shift. Gah. I’ll tell you, thank god those people sent all that stuff up and out of here. We have no need for crap like crops down here.” And then she’d quiet down, sit a little back in her poorly upholstered armchair, and wistfully stare out the window at the thin bright line of the nearest Link four cities over. “But I’ll tell you what, my dear Jezebel, they sure are pretty, aren’t they.”
“Why are they so bright Momma?”
“Gah. Nobody down here knows. Why do the moons vary in size? These things, they just are. All that outdated science stuff; it’s up where it belongs. No, we’ve been left the good stuff; been given the beauty of the world; why question these things?” And suddenly she’d snap out of her pensive reflection, diverting both herself and little Jes back to their modern reality. “Now go, your Pappa has some lead samples he needs sorted out in his observatory out back.”
But what does mother know? Jes reflected, her body already embarking on a slippery descent down the tor towards the forest. Or Kalilah for that matter. Hopping down one last cracked granite crag, Jes ran into the forest, the white light of the Meridian guiding her above.
* * * * *
Jes was almost blinded when the foliage disappeared as she stepped into another granite-floored clearing, her only bearing the pulsating white light around her. Heart rate escalating, breath shortening, and mind racing, Jes sat down against the rough & freezing surface, giving her body time to adjust to the site’s radiance.
The first thing she noticed was that she was on top of another peak of some kind. Inching herself forward along the rocks, Jes’s eyesight started to properly adjust to the white hue of the clearing, which she began to make out more as a small lake of some sort, recessed down at the bottom of the rocky bluff she currently lay on top of. A wall of irradiated green trees surrounded the area, directing her attention towards the imposingly tall structure shooting upwards from the center of the water’s surface. As Jes slowly stood back up, the second thing she began to perceive was that the base of the Link was far less pretty than she had imagined.
Rusted, dilapidated metal beams shot off in every direction around the pillar, forming a dense latticework whose sole purpose seemed to be to protect the many thin columns of pulsating light soaring upwards to the garden-heaven above. It amazed Jes that the structure was still standing. She arced her head back, stretching her vision in an attempt to follow the monumental verticality of such antiquated architecture, but the light only too quickly blended together into one thin perpendicular line, cutting the sky in half. The glowing arc of the Meridian hovered above, a crown atop its head; the waning light of Delta Luna borne as if a badge of honor.
Jes worked her way down the rocks, her perception of the lake below entirely lost in it’s glass-like reflection of the beams of light from the sky above, making the architecture appear to continue on forever. At the water’s edge, a single, rail-less catwalk hovered across the water towards the base of the pillar of light. Jes aimlessly ran her hand over a weathered granite plaque - the last lines of which had been eaten away by time – too absorbed in the enticing allure of the decrepit structure before her. Her feet clanged against the icy steel of the walkway as her body slowly became engulfed in the tower’s emanating, ethereal white light, and it wasn’t until Jes turned back to shield her eyes that she suddenly realized she was inside the structure, now part of a non-stop ascent up into the sky. The diminutive speck of the large granite tor she sat upon earlier grew smaller in the distance below, and Jes fearfully watched the earth disappear as the light around her linked her to Meridian.
Two characters, brushed beneath a beautiful black washed tree.
The ink had yet to dry, but I bestowed upon them my sympathies. Their swirling silhouettes yearned for a story. Were they lovers? No, such stories are trite, in my opinion. But one must be a romantic soul. “Do you love him?” the larger splotch might have asked. I stroked the head of the smaller figure to the side. “I cannot,” she would respond dramatically. I flipped her hair with the tip of my brush.
“Poor soul would give his heart to you,” Father figure would advise. Or was he a Mother figure? I weighed the options. Dad would want marriage because it was arranged. Because that was the way of the world when he was young and wanting love. Mom’s touch would be of a more tender nature. No daughter of hers will be gifted with dowry. Black dye seeped into veins of paper, the two women’s heads drifting their gazes to the cherry blossoms hanging above.
“And I, my heart to his friends, or the friends of his friends. For an hour, maybe two. No more than a night.”
I swept the mature stain’s hand hard against the younger pool. Her ink splayed across the page. The work was ruined. Beautiful things bring about the worst of us.
One two three four, I declare a lover’s war…
Mrs. Caretaker strides her way on by, eyes our table and raises her brow.
Nothing to see here. She continues on. Well done, my friend.
Five six seven eight, three sheep down, Bo Peep irate…
The game: complete. Our interest: gone. I turn my head in shame.
Our hands collect. My soft wrinkles fold. The Mrs. is absent for now.
Ashes, ashes, we both fall down.
Flounder, Savior, my flounder in the sea…
My wife, good Isabel, is driving me against my will. With golden hair she spins all her lies, one after another, detailing my mistakes and her unending list of grievances. She fails to mention herself, but let us refrain from reminding her. Poor Mrs. Isabel, lost in reverie. She isn’t too fond of you – and rightly so – but who is she to judge?
We have no daughters, only sons, one of whom has fallen. She spoiled him, as I should have known. The resulting custody battle was heartless.
Three bags full: a master, a dame, and a boy who used to be me…
To my dear, good Isabel: we haven’t spoken in years. You were the first to go. Are the boys well? Actually, don’t answer; I’d prefer not to know. My Rosie has worsened and it’d be too much guilt to bear.
Hush, little child, please don’t say a word…
Your Momma’s out on a business trip - with another man I presume. But do not worry. My friend will come over, and she will make everything all right. Don’t ask me how, but she has a way of making everything seem all the more right. Momma Isabel will return, but only in due time. Until then, let us go to service, and reflect on our sins.
Good Momma Isabel eventually returns, but with her arrival, broken glass and fallen hearts. She curses me. I attempt to argue, but to no avail. She throws a tantrum, the result of which turns our youngest son’s quaint fourth-grade-level ceramic dish into dust, peppered across the wall behind me.
Isabel’s storm hides a calming complacency, eager to leave, my children in tow. I may be the religious one, but in our family, Momma has the moral ground. Don’t ask me how.
And when the mockingbird can no longer sing…
My lawyer told me this day would come. Shuffling across the lawn, strife with ache. When I’d kneel myself down, grab the paper, wave to a neighbor I can’t remember if I give a shit about or not. When I’d rummage my way back inside, make myself coffee, muse on the smell, cook some eggs, sit myself down at a whitewashed table across from a rosy-cheeked mistress taking an unnecessary morning drag, and – somehow, against all odds - accidentally come across an overdue obituary notice of some love long gone. My lawyer told me it’d be pure bliss. The smell of coffee, newsprint, cigarettes, and death. A hallmark of the glorious nineteen fifties.
I wrinkle up the news pages and toss them on the floor. My companion’s fag follows suit, and to ashes, our memories go.
Donny and Teddy brought the little sack of bones to Mother. I sat behind the couch a room over, learning my lessons from television characters and letters on the screen. I had forgotten my brothers were outside.
“…bring it in the house!?” I heard Mother scream. Anger was no stranger in our home. I focused on the screen, but some words were louder than others. “Dare you!— hurt!— do something!— in here!—”
Fuming events like these are far more enticing than letters and numbers. My arms gravitated to the battered sofa. I peered over the upholstery.
Teddy was crying. Mother rummaging – for something, I couldn’t make out exactly what. Her back was turned. Donny hit Teddy.
“Shut up!” Donny exclaimed, like outside, earlier in the day.
“That wasn’t me,” Teddy had replied with agitation, kicking the dead grass in anger beneath the afternoon sun.
“It was too. You’re wailing because that girl Chrissy called you funny names at school today.”
“I was not!”
“Yes you were!” Donny insisted. “Now let me practice and toss the ball.”
“Only if you shut up about Chrissy!” Teddy threw the ball into the ground. “I don’t want Dad to know.”
“Fine, whatever. Just stop your wailing.”
“I told you! It wasn’t me!”
“It damn right was you Donald!” Mother exclaimed when she turned back around. “And so help me when you Father hears—”
She shoved a wrinkled box at Donny, opting out of the rest of her threat. The cardboard box was ready to fall apart. The printed image of my glow-up shoes on its side suffered terrible water damage from when Teddy clogged the sink. He received a beating that day.
The box fell to the floor, Donny failing to hold it properly. I, too, lowered myself down. Crouched in a ball and focused on the television.
Teddy was crying. He choked out a warbled sentence. “Wasn’t— we found— it was already—”
‘Car’ is spelled C-A-R. A few cartoony vehicles roll across the screen.
“Please don’t tell Daddy!” Teddy mustered. I heard Donny shove Teddy again, followed by Mother’s bony hand across his face.
I screamed. Mother and my brothers all pretended not to notice, unlike before when I was outside in the front lawn.
“Little-T?!” Donny asked, out of breath, running across the lawn. Teddy was behind him, baseball in hand. “What’s wrong Tee?”
“Don’t scream like that!” Teddy and his high-pitched voice shrieked. I was crying. “Momma might come out and think something is wrong!”
Donny wacked Teddy’s shoulder. “Something might be wrong you dunce!” He held my shoulders and kneeled down. “Tee, what’s wrong? Do we need to get Momma?” I sniffled and tried to catch my breath. “Tee, I need you to stop crying. What’s the matter? Are you hurt?”
Teddy’s face began to pale, his arms running in bizarre motions. “Oh crap, Donny. Is Theresa hurt? Is she hurt? I’m going to get Momma!”
“Shut up Teddy! Let her speak first”
I failed to do just that, but limply pointed to the small matted heap on the side of the road. “What’s that?” Donny asked, his grip on my shoulders loosened.
“It’s a bird!” I started crying again. Donny stood up. Teddy made his way to the road, curious to see the tiny corpse.
Donny stood hushed. He didn’t expect something as naïve as a run-over bird, let alone a slap from Mother. Teddy also fell to silence.
“The two of you will stop bickering and go outside and bury it!” Mother yelled.
‘Airplane’ is a combination of two words. ‘Air,’ spelled A-I-R, and ‘plane,’ spelled PLANE. Little white birds took to the sky on the monitor.
“You will learn to respect nature, not kill it!” Mother continued. Teddy’s crying had also resumed. “And don’t think for a second that this won’t come up Wednesday when I take the two of you to confession. You better pray the Lord treats you better than you treat animals, Donald!”
“Momma, we told you!” I heard Donny argue. “The bird was dead! We found it on the road.”
“Road kill doesn’t make it’s way into your baseball mitt, Donald! Or your brother’s shirt!” Mother was having none of it. “Now bury it!”
“Alright! Fine.” Donny muttered. He must have bent down and picked up the box just as he did the little bird from the street.
“Donny?” I whimpered. “Is it alive?”
He laughed. “No way in hell Little-T. Thing’s worse than that squirrel I shot with the BB-gun.” He playfully thrust the carcass towards Teddy’s face.
“Get that away from me!” Teddy freaked. “Put it down, that’s so gross!”
“Donny stop!” I yelled. The poor little bird didn’t deserve Donny’s boy-like intentions.
“What?! It’s not even that wet. Thing must’ve been dad for hours, soaked up in the sun.” He slipped the mass from his palm. It hung in a lifeless manner from his two fingers pinched on the remains of a wing.
“It’s not a thing, it’s a little bird!” I bawled, more angry than upset now. “Put it down or I’m going to tell Momma!”
“Don’t tell Momma Theresa!” Teddy fought back. “You’re the one who found it. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“See. Don’t tell Momma Little-T. Here Teddy, catch” Donny tossed the dead bird at Teddy, whose arms flew in every direction to avoid the throw. The mess landed hard on his chest, staining his pale blue shirt with a sickly brown scar.
“Donny no!” I screamed.
“What the hell Donny!?” Teddy also hollered. “That’s so gross!”
“C’mon, lets play catch with the bird.” Donny laughed, smiling. “Do it or I’ll tell Chrissy about how you squealed like a little girl when you saw a dead bird in the street.”
“I didn’t squeal like a little girl!” Teddy replied, kicking the grass. “Theresa’s the little girl.”
“Donny, stop playing with the bird or I’m going to tell Momma! I’m mean it!” I wanted to cry again.
Teddy looked at me, fearing the worst. “Donny will you shut her up!”
“Hey! You shut up you little wimp. She’s not going to tell Momma.” Donny kneeled down in front of me again.
“You’re right Little-T. I didn’t mean to toss the bird around.” He said, holding my arms in a brotherly fashion. “Tell you what, Teddy and I will give the bird a proper burial. We’ll go and dig a little hole, get a box from Momma, and give it a proper burial. Yeah? That sound respectful?”
I sniffled. “Why don’t you go inside and watch some TV? Have you watched any TV today?” Donny asked. I shook my head. I had yet to have my TV time for the day.
“Yeah Theresa, you should go watch TV.” Teddy joined in. “Donny and I will bury the bird. You shouldn’t see sad things like that. We’ll take care of it.” I nodded.
“Go run inside, watch some TV.” Donny finished. He stepped back and picked up his glove. Comforted, I headed back to the house. “C’mon Teddy, let’s play catch before the sun goes down.”
I knew, and so did she. Ripped back the curtains, my revelation unfolded. A porcelain face, scarred with detriment and weight no child ought to bear. Yes, she was a child. She always was, of that I am sure. But for years she was a he, akin to those of some religions now past. Her paling visage a reconstruction of shattered, burnt, and charred belief. I believed in little.
She looked down on me, by where the curtains hung, and I pitied her. Mother’s faith in this sister of mine was forever lacking. "She will never come," she said by my bedside, "and you are stronger than her." I did my best to nod. Let Mother’s words float over me. "Yes," I agreed. She would never come. "I am a strong water lily," I recited, like a prayer.
But she and I were sisters all along, a gift from Father. I had too many gifts. When my sister finally arrived, I imagine she paused a moment; walked through my door and stared. I bet a smile crept into the corner of her lip. The one that delivers the worst of news. Sisters have no sense of privacy. Her pace wavered when she began her advances. Delicate hands washed clean in the river, pushing back gardens of excessive bloom, one of my home’s many sacred temples.
My room was ripe with offerings. It waned and waxed, like cycles of the moon. "One day you’ll understand," Mother said, planting her blossoms. My bed was in season. She stroked my head. I could not nod, and stared at the flowers. Poor orchards, clipped clean of their natural beauty. Wasted on me.
My sister saw the irony in this. I watched her hands cup a nearby lily. She held it tenderly. I waited for it to wither, but it only grew stronger. "The poor thing; already dead," she explained to me. "Gardener should have never cut it free." I blinked away a tear. She knelt by my bedside, and kept me company for sometime.
When Mother saw this, she broke down and began to pray. Her tears dripped onto her floral dress. Father clasped my hands numbingly. My sister affectionately picked me up, held me, and began to pull me away. "I am a strong water lily," I recited, like a prayer.
Now a certain man was wanting to be ill. He came to my house early the morning of the sixth, and wept in the company of my chest and shoulder after I welcomed him through my door. We used to go bird watching together, he and I. Then we used to date. A trivial affair, those few weeks, with little solace stemming from either party. So we went back to bird watching, though it had been a significant number of years since our last outing.
I made him a dark, aromatic brew, and we sat in the shoddy, shaded sun room of my temporary home. He choked out the news before taking a sip, but such a substance hardly agreed with his unsettled state. Black and brown droplets coughed themselves back into the mug. I watched the struggle from where I sat. Let the earthly, bitter scent expunge my soul and gingerly expressed my condolences. I, too, knew of his symptoms, albeit a mother rather than a lover. But she was only half the battle, his wife. The rest was hard to hear. That she was, in four months, due. He was to be named after his grandfather, who I knew my old friend loved deeply. “Why did you come to me?” I asked him. Reaching over, he embraced me, my stiff rigor hardly holding a limp soul upright. “We used to listen to the birds together,” he said, with a look as though that were the answer to everything.
Once, several days after but still in the midst of his wake, we took him to a torn and scarred patch of earth, a mutual friend and I. The sun hung sullenly to the East, blotched by thin tufts of clouds. From the pulled-over-to-the-shoulder vehicle, he left distastefully. Recycled morning pollen mottled with salty tears and grubby hands, clawing with fervor at the clean handles of my Chevy. We remained silent, fabricated our failure to notice the growing claustrophobic frenzy, and remained still in the car for some time once he finally fled free from our watchful eyes. His grief fought the fresh air beside the road, and, slowly, he collected himself. Poor fellow scuttled to the clearing. We continued to wait in the car. Watched as he grabbed and jerked and hurled rocks and twigs and dirt and things before calming down once again. “Now is as good a time as any to be with him,” our friend spoke from behind my view. We stepped out and sat with him amidst the acoustics of passing commuters while he made attempted, once again, to make peace with the world.
We witnessed similar spectacles many times in the days that followed. In the hours of his beloved’s descent, he fell to his knees. Down she and the child went. “Together, though briefly, in this life, and eternally, in the next,” his pastor preached. It was silent. Before tossing the first of the earth down with them, he spat at the ground by his knees, rubbing it into the dirt and collecting its paste. He rubbed his eyes and prayed that he could see. We watched from behind, alongside a congregation of murmured empathies. “See how he mixes his saliva with the clay and rubs his eyes,” a woman whispered. “He looks to religion now. Thinks it can save him.”
We looked to the birds for therapy. I suggested it, believing my time had come to play savior. I showed him warblers, hummers, sparrows, and swallows, but few songs gave him life. I kissed his head, kissed his cheek, then kissed his lips, and brought him to a coffee shop so that I may invite him into my home. We sat uncomfortably on two cheap twig-bound chairs, and he gently ran the stems of his hands across each other. One palm coiled around its counterpart, then softly pulled back, succumbing to the embrace of its compliment. I never knew banal actions could be beautiful. Haunting. I desired it to stop, like so many tragedies I could no longer bear with the world. “You must stop.” I asked of him. He movements continued. “I am sick,” he replied in earnest. I could watch no further. “You are not, and you need to move on.” His hypnotic fingers slowed, tracing softer paths around each other. When they finally remained still, I diverted my eyes away. A salty tear hung loose on the tip of his nose, but the corner of is mouth was pulled taught. A sly grin, veiled beneath his grief. His demeanor unnerved me. “Perhaps you should learn to stay,” my poor friend muttered. I did not understand, and we left the shop a pair of bitter souls.
Deserts are not kind to a dog. A dog does not sweat through fur, only in the areas wherein such glands exist. Like our paws or our snout. We can also attempt to alleviate heat through panting. Huffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuff. Much like that. But not entirely like that. That makes us sound tired and exhausted. We are not tired and exhausted. Just hot. Like we said, being in a desert is not ideal for a dog.
Sand is also not kind to a dog. Our paws struggle with the grains, and the granules mat¬ our fur. They chafe our underside. Poor pup has to suckle from our abused and raw belly. How can we continue to care for ourself with a pup at our side?
Remember that one time in particular? We strutted along the sand, the waves splashed by our side – the side with our good ear, not the other. Little pup was scared of the great sea, and the saline water could not successfully quench its thirst. So, to keep pup calm, we retreated back to the desert.
Remember the strangers, the wild ones, whose ancestors date back to our own? Wolves and beasts, monsters and men, once-upon-a-time formidable tigers and cats and beasts and sea-wolves and general things of that sort. There was the desert tundra, much akin to the one where it all ended. Frozen and delicate, yet so full of waste. A white piss of purity from ancestors who have since lost their say, ardently deluging our body with blankets we certainly never asked for.
But we ran fast and free, looking back and admiring a single trail of tracks, weaving in and out of the pine trees. For miles the forest continued, until flakes of frozen snow crystallized into tiny beads of golden sun. The trees grew short and sprouted fur. We feasted on their bark, but the scaly skin had a bite that was painful and numbing. Our blood evaporated when it splashed against the ground. We continued to chew, lapping not at the plant but rather at the liquid life that poured from the wounds. It cooled and quenched our thirst in ways we could not determine. Somewhere above, our ancestors might have been pleased.
This was not the life we wanted for pup. In the desert, out of the desert. Across sand, through forests, and across sand again. Progress goes only so far, but we are always drawn back to the desert.
We decided not to tell pup of ancestors. When our time comes, little pup will find its own way. This is much better. Already, we huffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuff across the sands while pup quietly pads ahead of us. Pup knows how to walk on only two legs, but decides not to do so often. Our pup is far greater than we will ever be.
Remember when we scaled ourself to the top of the great mountain? Looking down at all the lands before us. Mostly deserts, of course. Off in the distance was winter, the land we have avoided and did not think we would ever get back. There were even faint wisps of civilization, speckled around the mountain. We barked a laugh. They were down there and we were up here. How haughty of us. Empowering gusts of pride whipped our tail and tussled our fur as we looked down upon others. No wonder our ancestors continue to enthrall themselves with life below. Perhaps we might have done the same for pup.
On our way down the mountain, we scratched our side in the thickets, wailing and weeping a valley of tears. The howling became incessant, and vindictive. Surely we did not think anything would come of it, but the more we barked and howled, the easier it was to speak. We orated to great lengths, and the mountainside heard our echoes. With just our words the waters dried up, seeping into cracks as drying land broke into fissures. Slits and fractures of a broken terrain rose and fell. Empires came and went. Cities came to life and fell to ruble. A great mass of people and beasts sprouted from the crevices. They listened, intently, to our song, occasionally panting in unison across deserts. Huffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuffhuff. The masses crawled with spindling legs to the top of the ruined spires, bestowing to us atop the mountain our pup, a gift of appreciation.
The valley flooded again, this time tears of joy. The thickets withdrew themselves. We made our way to the shoreline, and strutted by the sea.
Remember when we met man? Pup was tired, half asleep, delicately suspended above the sand by our fangs. A trail of prints none like our own extended ahead of us, leading us – once again – out of the desert. The granules returned to their ghost white apparitions. Pup woke up, eagerly leapt from our mouth, and pranced across the snow. The great white sea was far less menacing. It had the comfort of sand and the purity of water. We turned to leave, but pup failed to heel.
Man is also not kind to a dog. The tracks we followed bore flesh. Men rose from the snow and attacked us with thickets. We protected pup at all costs. Snatched him up with our fangs and tossed him behind us. Their spiny members prodded and jabbed; their iron teeth plucked liquid life. When they spoke, great clouds of disposition blossomed before them. Their very own ancestors, guiding them to victory. We were terrified. We were mortified. We were cold. When we howled, no one listened. When we panted, the land did not move. When our blood fell to the ground, the snow turned red. Huffhuffhuff— huffhuffhu— huffhuf— hu—
“Harry! Harry! Do you hear that?” Beth screamed from her wooden rocker. She swayed back and forth a bit, waiting for a response. “What?! Hear what?” Her husband echoed from another room. “The dog, the goddamn stray!” Beth hollered, carelessly stabbing her finger with her needle. “Incessant bitch barking again” she continued to herself. There was a flustered racket of noise as her husband came to her call.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Harry declared, hobbling into the room. “What’s going on? What’s the racket?” Beth shoved her threads into her lap. “The stray, Harry! The dog’s come back!” Her hands arced with fury towards one of the nearby windows. Harry looked over. “Christ. Well, what do you expect me to do about it Beth. It’s not our dog.” His wife let out an exasperated sigh. “It’s nobodies dog, Harry! It’s a goddamn stray! Go out there and shut it up!”
Removing his hands from denim pockets, Harry walked to the window, pulled out the curtain and peered out. “Agh! The damn thing looks injured.” He looked to Beth, who only frowned harder. “Well no wonder the bitch won’t shut up! Go put it out of its misery.” She returned her attention and muttering to her threads “I’m sewing. I can’t sew with all this racket. Worthless stray.”
“Aw, but Beth, there’s a puppy by its side.” Harry turned to look at his wife, who dropped her equipment yet again and looked him in the eyes. She raised her finger to her husband. “Then you go out there and shoot the goddamn both of them. I will not have another stray in the future! It’ll know where we live!” Harry looked down at his wife, who slowly brought her finger down. Beth thrust her head emphatically towards the door. He nodded. She was right. A dog was a nuisance.
Harry went outside, got his gun, and shot the goddamn both of them.
Aether is not kind to an ascendant. We float and prance and walk and glide, never feeling grounded and forever wanting stability. Our life is one colossal dream, our thoughts guiding pups from one span of the earth to the next, as if we knew what was best. But we did not even know what was best for ourself. Why must they place their trust in us? The world is a strange place.
Occasionally we do good. We mark suitable land with our piss, scare away pups with our thunderous howls, and draw life from their earth just as we had done for ourself. We are pleased when pups accomplish what we could not, and frustrated when pups fail as we had. No, don’t wander there, the harmful men live nearby. They show no mercy.
There is the ethereal sea. We swim and soar and struggle against a current that follows the landscape of life beneath us. There is power to its tide. We were promised control, but now fight it, because life seemed better when there was our elder self guiding us towards one fate or another. Fate is a trifling matter now. We are fate. What a terrible curse. Surely we did not ask for this.
Look, our pups have found a home. How peculiar. They submit themselves to domestication in return for shelter and safety. The world is a strange place.
We fly by greater beings. They look at us with apologetic eyes, not knowing that there was space for all things in this limbo. Feast your civilized eyes on our feral souls. We forgive you. How were you to know?
The pups yearn for the call of wild. We cascade their pelts with white sand and stretch their fangs into tusks. In return, they honor us. They offer men in sacrifice, cascade the liquid life from their throats with humility and civility. Pups tear at the earth and erect mountains to the sky. They crave to be closer to our name, carved in their stones. We do not understand why they treat their self and the earth in this way. They do not understand the extent of the life they have.
The world is a strange place. When we were young, was it always so complicated? It chills us, this confusing scene below. Pups wander like the world is theirs for the taking. Believing in nature as if it were ours to control. Silly beasts. What do they think of us? Masters of the sky? We trek and run and stretch and huff just like they do. There are greater beasts and larger things we run in fear from. We piss our snow and deluge our tears like any other creature in these heavens. We do not understand, nor do our pups. Life never changes, of this we are certain.
Often I am drawn to reminiscing on a particular conversation I had with a friend regarding emotion. “I can’t help but feel so many emotions all the time,” she sputtered, “that’s just how I perceive things. And I want to see those emotions in others, and if I don’t, then I want to feel them for them." Her voice was soft, almost shaking, seeking my understanding. Just hours prior, we had received results from the Myers-Briggs test, an introspective self-report exam that assigns an individual four basic personal traits that categorizes how one perceives the world. She was an F, for feeling; I was a T, for thinking; neither of our allotted letters were particularly surprising. “You make it sound like people with T’s don’t process emotion,” I vaguely remember saying. “That’s far from true – for me, at least. I very much feel the effects of emotion like you do, but I make an effort not to display them unless I’m absolutely positive I can consider them genuine. I have to spend time thinking about them alone, by myself, in here,” I motioned to my head with my finger, “to make sure I don’t distract people with aimless emotions. I’m about quality. You’re about quantity.” For a brief while, we kept on the subject, but it was obvious we viewed the other’s perceptions as foreign and couldn’t figure what to make of it. I understood my friend’s inability to not express emotion. I understood that for some, the desire to express themselves on a whim is innate and necessary. I also understood that for me, such emotional commitment would lose the authenticity I needed to “properly feel.”
It’s ironic, really, that all my friend wanted was to empathize with my ability to feel emotion – whether she succeeded or not I cannot say – when it’s my process of feeling emotion that hinders empathetic solicitation. In the same way I guard feelings of anger, sadness, and love for weeks on end until I’m sure they are valid enough to relay to someone else, I guard the notion of empathy for fear of misleading another. A friend recently learned her parents are in the process of splitting? “I can only imagine the crazy emotions and thoughts you must be going through right now,” is all I seem to want to say. “I’m so sorry.” Truth is, my parents never split, nor would I be inclined to believe they might in the future. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve known heartbreaking sadness and confusion in my lifetime, but to align my past experiences with one I know little about is a bold assumption. I can sit on a park bench and stare at the sea of confusion and disappointment in my friend’s eyes as she rambles on about how her family life is a mess and I want to tell her I know exactly how she must feel, but my mind processes the thoughts ruthlessly. To say such a thing… is it a lie? My heart says no, but my mind says yes. To put it in the words of Allison Reynolds, a misfit character from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), it’s kind of a “double-edged sword.” To express empathy is to lie about my own experience and devalue the ethic, but to withdraw from its expression is to value its validity at the cost of my own callousness. Somehow, sympathy lies somewhere in between. I put my arm around her, express my sympathies, and give her a hug. It’s all I can do.
I’ll never understand how easily some people accept empathy. I want to understand, and in the case of my friend assigned the F – the feeler – I’m inclined to believe that I do. Her perception of the world is reliant on the display of emotions. “For every action, a reaction,” according to Isaac Newton. “For every action, an emotional reaction,” according to her. And when others – when I – fail to express that emotion for the world to see, she believes the responsibility falls on her, as if her emotional tolerance is capable of channeling hers into others – into mine. It’s sweet, really, for anybody fortunate enough to be on her receiving end. If she had her wish, I’m sure she would empathize with the world – I’m sure she believes she does, in fact empathize with the world, on a level similar to Baker’s broad empathetic grasp at everyone; bastards, whores, saints, redeemed alike. Sometimes I wonder if I can simply channel her channeled empathy to others. Her emotions exist. She expresses emotion for me. I sympathize with others and picture her empathy for them. Is that not channeled? Does the very act of wanting to empathize breed empathy?
In of her collection of essays on empathy, The Empathy Exams (2014), Leslie Jamison regards empathy as a choice. After battling the emotions of herself and others following stories of abortion, heart-surgery, and assault, Jamison struggles with the notion of how one can truly empathize. These essays are her confessions, introspective thinking displayed to an audience with no knowledge of any one reader’s ability to pick up the book and say, “I’ve gone through exactly what she has. I understand the pain she must be feeling” (23). But Jamison publishes her confessions anyways, perhaps choosing to put herself, her experiences, and her emotions on display in the very act of empathizing with all her readers. “These are my stories,” she seems to want to say, “and no, my experiences are not like yours, but here’s my pain anyways. Perhaps we can relate.” Does this solicitation become genuine, then? Jamison ultimately seems to believe so. “Empathy isn’t something that just happens to us… it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves” (23). In this way, Jamison considers empathy authentic no matter what – despite whatever the giver or receiver may be inclined to believe. “To say going through the motions – this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of effort,” she says, relating hand in hand with her countless examples of “going through the motions” on both the giving and receiving end. From how the medical students attempted to dialogue with her as a fake patient (5), to how her actual doctor attempted to respond to her private information on her recent abortion (14-15), to how she herself attempted to respond to the suffering community of Morgellons disease (44). One may think of her as an F, a feeler, because of her ability to embrace empathy and express herself, but I think of her as a T, a thinker. Throughout her narratives, Jamison struggles to put emotions on display to other characters. It is only in the act of penning her works that she does so, after years of guarded contemplation. In this way, I believe Jamison to be a T, and her eventual acceptance of empathy beyond validity is a maturity I wonder if I’ll one day reach.
“Angels flutter around her heart,” Sam Baker sings in the opening line of his song, Angels. A curious song, to say the least, that directly seems to address a spread of ideas ranging from emotion to religion to society; not to mention the mysterious Her, whom the lyrics appear to follow throughout the course of the song. “When trouble comes to the one she loves / her angels come,” “her angels come like healing rain… like rain her healing angels fall… her healing angels softly call,” and “I call her name she holds me tight / she whispers everything’s going to be all right,” are all instances in which Baker addresses this female pronoun. It is an interesting use of an unidentified pronoun. The lyrics suggest graciousness present in this feminine figure who bears a strong union with angelic personas. Moreover, the graciousness of Her becomes integral in the song as She extends her angels outward to others. “When trouble comes to the ones she loves / her angels come.” The result is an outwardly empathic character, one whose identity remains unknown. The namelessness makes the empathy difficult to ascertain for the listener – for myself, I must admit. Does the empathy exist? I want to say Baker is hiding his own empathies behind anonymity, but he’s also put himself in the lyrics as well. “I get nervous about what dark brings / I call her name she holds me tight,” he sings in the middle of the song. His portrayal of himself contrasts the female. Whereas She calls upon angels to assist others, Baker openly admits to nervousness at the thought of what others can do – what others can even dream of doing. His lyrics heighten the song to an ephemeral, poetic display of empathy. It’s there, but the how and why remains elusive.
But perhaps I was right in connecting Baker to the female pronoun as an anonymous depiction of self. Or, more appropriately, the She – the Her – is a personified representation of Baker’s own empathetic emotions. “I call her name she holds me tight.” It’s possible that, following Baker’s admission of fear – fear of others and their potential – he feels the need to call on empathy, a reminder that he is capable of such an emotion. It certainly makes Angels connect on a deeper, more personal level, but if this is the case, how, then, does empathy become genuine? If it is a sentiment one can beckon, then the impulse of the partaking in another’s emotions – anyone’s emotions, as revealed in the lines “Everyone is a bastard / everyone is a whore / everyone is a saint / everyone is redeemed” – is dulled because the core of empathy should lie in its impulse. It’s possible, though, that Baker is keenly aware of this. After all, the very act of songwriting can be self-therapy, a chance for self-discovery and introspective thinking published to a greater audience. “I want to empathize with the people of the world; with the bastards, the whores, the saints, and the redeemed,” Baker seems to want to say to his listeners, “but it’s hard – harder than I think I ever thought it would be.” And when he does empathize, he does so behind the visage of a pious, anonymous, female pronoun that – because of social norms – is more readily acceptable as an empathetic character.
Baker’s intentional distancing of himself from empathy makes me wonder if he would identify as an F, for feeler, or a T, for thinker. The poetic nature of his lyrics and their underlying presence of raw emotion – “…love can heal … ease all suffering … heal all pain … I get nervous … Amen” – are strong inclinations of Baker as a feeler; yet, his personal withdrawal from the raw emotion of empathy – hidden behind the veil of the personified Her – mars a complete feeler profile. If anything, this separation mirrors my own reluctances. I acknowledge empathy. I very much believe it exists, and I see it in others, but I find difficulty in expressing it because of my reluctance to believe in its authenticity. In this vein, Baker might more closely identify as a T because he too finds difficulty in expressing an authentic empathy on his own accord.
Granted, by writing the lyrics regardless, Baker has taken ownership over all emotions expressed in the song, and to some, that alone is proof of Baker’s dominant feeler nature. It’s a tricky spectrum; one so bipolar that surely its application of self-identification is inherently flawed in its inability to address the grey-area in between. But without definitions, how else could one – could I – seek to understand the world or the people around me? Perhaps this is my problem; my very own “confession effort that chafes the notions of empathy” (Jamison 23). In yearning for an understanding of the ethic, I’m unable to achieve the simplicity of accepting it as it is, instead relying on my friend, the feeler, to “go through the motions” for me. I would argue that even Baker – to a degree – accepts “going through he motions” as an acknowledgment of empathy rather than a reduction, otherwise why included the personified Her at all? Why sing of healing angels when he could sing of the apprehension of dreams? There’s a clarity hidden in Baker’s confusing display of emotions; one that seems to want to say, “It’s okay to be confused and questioning, just figure out how to accept things as they are anyways,” which strengthens my resolve to no longer look to my feeler friends to “go through the motions” for me.
Baker, Sam. Angels. 2009. Audio.
Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Essays. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf, 2014. Print.
The Breakfast Club. Dir. John Hughes. Universal Pictures, 1985. Film.
Consider a bench. How do you sit? Why do you sit? What do you do while you’re there, and for how long? Do you even sit at all? Surprising as it may sound, the questions are far from as silly as they sound. A person and a bench have a rich, complicated history, one that fluctuates in functional use and usage rate over any given number of factors. Consider a more specific example: the bench outside of a high-trafficking library. Actually, more ledge than bench; a dividing partition, extended exactly thirty-two inches off the ground, grass on one side, walkway on the other. In the time spent observing this public ledge-bench outside of Olin Library’s front entrance on Washing University in St. Louis’s campus, a place where social interaction between young learning individuals is supposed to thrive in support of the educational environment, scores of individuals – students, professors, and adults alike – were performing the exact opposite of their social expectations. At 3:00 in the afternoon – the public area’s peak hours – occupants sit and remain both isolated and fixated on their own technological devise (current devices for most; designed within the last 5 years). Of the approximately eighteen persons occupying the space for longer than five minute stretches of time, there are at most 3 observable social exchanges. In this space, the technological devices are in control.
This ledge-bench and its surrounding area outside of Olin Library is exactly the type of space William H. Whyte would have loved to study for his published work and accompanying film documentary titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). In this in-depth series of studies, Whyte and his team, The Street Life Project est. 1971, dutifully investigated “the behavior of ordinary people on city streets – their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, [and] the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye” (Whyte 8). In the process of determining what spaces work, what spaces don’t, and the respective reasons why, Whyte ultimately came to the implied conclusion that the social interaction phenomena surrounding public spaces were inherent and human courses of action that have rarely changed over time despite architectural and design evolution. Just look at the widely successful public plazas in older European cities that have withstood the test of time and social evolution, like Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy or Place des Vosges in Paris, France. “The best used plazas are sociable places” (17), “people reading, people eating, people talking, playing games… what attracts people most, it would appear, is other people” (18-19) and this sociability, Whyte seemed to believe, would never change.
It’s a bold statement, unfortunately, one could easily argue that the social and cultural patterns have seen an unprecedented deviation from this “inherent norm,” the result of a massive burst in technological change rather than architectural or design evolution. The Olin ledge-bench is the most successful public space within a two-three mile radius, yet from the time spent observing it, sociability seemed at a low and people seemed only marginally attracted to other people. If Whyte had the opportunity to observe this public space today, in 2015, then perhaps Whyte’s conclusion might have an addendum to account for technology, as it exists now rather than thirty-five years ago. That is, technology as an application of new social phenomena – both the objects upon which people are fixated and the social conditions the objects establish via their use. Discovering this addendum is the overarching goal of this investigative paper.
* * * * *
In the simplest of terms, Whyte believed that people are attracted to other people, but is this truly the case? Or, at the very least, has this belief become outdated in recent years because of prominent effects on sociability from technological evolution? Spatial attention and sociological theory are core principles that can relate back to an individual seated, say, on a ledge outside of Olin library. An article by researchers Kaitlin E. W. Laidlaw, Tom Foulsham, Gustav Kuhn, Alan Kingstone, and Dale Purves titled “Potential Social Interactions are Important to Social Attention” (2011) delves into sociological theory with an experiment that measured participants looking behaviors sitting in a waiting room, either in the presence of another person (a confederate in the study) or in the presence of the same person in a backdrop recording on a display screen. The study found that participants frequently looked at the screen of the videotaped person and seldom turned toward or looked directly at the live person. They documented both overt and covert gaze inclinations, with overt being defined as direct social gazes – focused, it should be noted, on the face, not the body – and covert being defined as peripheral gazes minimally acknowledging the other subject’s presence. In short, the study defines that “the potential (or lack thereof) for a social interaction to emerge may cause either 1) an increase in looking behavior when one knows that the other person cannot return their gaze or 2) a decrease in looking behavior when mutual gaze is possible… the simple act of introducing the potential for social interaction influences many measurable behaviors” (Laidlaw et al.).
The research indicates a number of things. First, people seem to not be, as Whyte would like to believe, attracted to other people; however, it can be concluded that, at the very least, people are interested in other people. With both the live and videotaped confederate, covert glances were recorded to occur much more often than overt gazes or baseline gazes at selected baseline objects in the waiting room. The high proportion of covert looks indicates that the second individual in the room does, indeed, interest the participants. Yet the fact that the recorded confederate on the screen attracted more attention than the live one cannot be ignored, and raises the question of whether or not people are more attracted to the presence of a screen – a application of technology present in almost all current forms of technology as an object – than the presence of a person.
Professors Anabela Mesquita and Chia-Wen Tsai wholeheartedly agree that yes, people are very much attracted to screens more so than people in their published text, Human Behavior, Psychology, and Social Interaction in the Digital Era (2015). Moreover, it’s not what’s necessarily on the screen that’s important either, but rather, the size of the screen that attracts the interest of the users. Inspired by former research claiming that, “different display characteristics may significantly affect the psychological importance of information displayed,” Mesquita and Tsai ultimately rebuked the correlation of larger screen space and user attraction, claiming instead that “user response to media information is usually preferred using screens of the average size” (131). The average size screen in devices as of 2015? Approximately six inches, weighed to such a short diagonal measurement due to the surplus of smartphone screens that dominate the technological market. And they are, indeed, favored, since more than a majority of the occupants in the Olin ledge-bench space were using smartphones rather than other devices.
So consider the smartphone. A research done by Tali Hatuka has found that smart phone users have regarded the public space differently as compared to normal mobile users – wherein “normal mobile users” refers to people using outdated phone technologies (i.e. non-smartphones; flip-phones). “These users are walking around the mall or to the train stations in their little bubble, thinking that they have their own privacy by detaching themselves from the real world” (Badger). Also stated, “it has caused people to be unaware of their surroundings, easily forgetting things they have walked past 10 minutes ago.” Moreover, smart phone users are more likely to run through their phone for directions instead of asking from strangers, promoting the device as the immediate associate for socialization rather than the surrounding society. This implied “detachment” infers the individuals’ own establishment of private space in an otherwise public setting. Hatuka and Badger, who writes on him, are led to believe that these issues will ultimately lead to a loss of human touch and a downgraded sense of awareness of the surrounding space – both the social space and the literal, existing designed space. If Hatuka’s statements hold true, then one could argue that people aren’t even at the very least interested in other people, completely refuting Whyte’s original postulate.
This poses the question of whether or not technology itself is at fault for the apparent withdrawal of social interaction among the individuals occupying the Olin ledge-bench. If technology does indeed play a factor in sociological theory, then how could it be studied? Sociologist Katrina C. Hoop published an article in 2012 called “Comte Unplugged: Using a ‘Technological Fast’ to Teach Sociological Theory” that delved into the cause-and-effect relationship between a student and his ready-at-hand technological devise. Hoop’s research can develop many parallels to the Olin ledge-bench, especially since the research primarily focuses on students form the current, technologically advanced generation. Ultimately, Hoop discovered that by embarking on “technology fast” (withdrawal from recurring technological usage), students were more engaged with social theory lessons and ideas in the educational setting than before. Of course, this only proves that an abandonment of technology is capable of fostering educational interest; however, the result can be extrapolated to prove that a removal of technology is capable of fostering any type of interest, including a social one.
In this investigation, technology exists both as the object and a social condition, and the primary use of the average device is social media. So if fifteen of the eighteen occupants in the Olin ledge-bench space where using devices, an assumed half of whom were in one form or another partaking in the use of social media, then there still exists a type of socialization in the public space. Technological social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, etc. spark new forms of interactions hidden behind the veil of the screen, in a relationship highly similar to Laidlaw et al.’s studies with the live and videotaped confederate. What’s more intriguing is the primary difference these digital social networks have to offer compared to the living social network of the small urban space the technological objects are being used in. Digitally, the user is allotted a sense of choice. He or she may upload a photo of their own selection, may share a link they deem appropriate, may post a status they find fitting. The appeal of choice is enormous in the digital database technology has access to, and this presents the idea that technological social conditions present occupants with a selection pool that far outweighs the selection pool the literal space they’re occupying offers. Why should a person talk to one of the other seventeen Olin ledge-bench occupants when he or she can talk to one of their six hundred and twelve friends on Facebook? Why bother observing one of the three couples walking by when they can observe the latest gossip of the hundreds of celebrity couples via Buzzfeed? This suggests another addendum. People aren’t attracted to other people, but rather people are attracted to what interests them.
If the social actions of these small urban space occupants – the rituals, as defined by Whyte in Spaces (26) – can be re-illustrated into technology use – again, both in object and social condition – then the same might be said of the small urban space as well. Or, more precisely, perhaps the “new evolution” of socialization present in technology deserves its own, new small public space: small digital spaces we might define it. A space visually similar to Dennis Crompton’s Computer City drawing (ca. 1964) which portrays an urban metropolis as a programmable network that responds and adapts to the activities of the city’s space. (Figure 1) It’s all hypothetical, as were most of Archigram’s self-imposed projects; however, Crompton’s visual display of the city is evocative of diode circuits and electrical substation design elements. Archigram was heavily inspired by the birth of the widely accessible technology we now have today for their designs, and this is obviously apparent in the abstract alternative to Peter Cook’s Plug-In City (ca. 1964) that is Computer City. Since Computer City is a diagram of system design in abstract space, the illustration can be appropriated to diagram technological social conditions in existing, concrete small urban spaces – a mapping of the larger, digital selection pool for occupants in the smaller selection pool of small urban spaces. It would be in this abstract realm of data systems that occupants are partaking in social activity – people seemingly attracted to other people – whereas in the physical realm of small urban spaces, socialization can be seen as dead, replaced with the notion of people attracted to what interests them rather than other people.
The small digital space is both similar and distant from Whyte’s original small urban space. The activities that occur remain the same, “people reading, people talking, playing games…” (Whyte 18), just translated differently, in the medium of a different space. This does either one of two things: 1) it upholds Whyte’s ultimate conclusion that social interaction phenomena surrounding public space (wherein public space is the digital space of technological social conventions) is inherent and a human course of action that has rarely changed over time, or 2) it disregards Whyte’s ultimate conclusion because the public space no longer exists in the physical form, with the concrete, small urban spaces showing a complete lack of socialization beyond the device. It becomes a matter of perspective. Shlomo Benartzi and Jonah Lehrer write in their book, The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior (2015), that despite the serious effects smartphones have had on society, “human nature [has] evolved over millions of years; it’s unlikely to be transformed in a decade or two” (34). While they spend the course of the novel acknowledging that “the medium of information and decision making has changed [as have our interventions with such]” (7) they see the effects of technology as nothing more than new translations of the same inherent human values – including Whyte’s social ones. People are attracted to other people; people still occupy the small urban space; ergo, Whyte’s conclusion is valid, and no addendum is ultimately necessary.
But if one were obliged to believe otherwise, to fall in line with option two where the small digital space does not stand for Whyte’s small urban space, then could Whyte’s conclusion still be an acceptable interpretation? Perhaps using Karen A. Cerulo’s published article, “Nonhumans in Social Interaction,” it can be deduced that the occupants of the small urban space are just as, if not more, socially active in the physical space than the digital one. “Nonhumans” looks at sociological theory in a new lens, claiming that social interaction extends beyond the human level. “If developments in the field suggest that nonhumans – including animals, objects, images, and both memories and projections of the self and others – enter our analytical frame,” then are we not actively involving ourselves in a form of social activity?
Picture this. While walking by the Olin Library, I feel my handheld device vibrate with an alert, so I alter course and rest on the nearby ledge-bench. The handheld device soon becomes distracting, and I begin scrolling through Facebook and other “social media” applications – all the while keenly aware of the ledge upon which I am sitting. I show no physical signs of socially involving myself with the score of students, adults, and professors walking by, yet despite the attention to my phone and my immersion in the small digital space it provides, my peripheral vision, covert senses (Laidlaw et al.), and innate sociological sense (Whyte) makes me aware of every person that stops or hesitates near or around my seated area of occupancy. The implicit, possible potential of social interaction is present, expressed through inanimate objects such as the ledge on which I rest, the device on which I use, the walkway on which people pass, and the grass on which people sit. If Cerulo’s theories are valid, then social interaction still exists in the small urban space despite the outweighed socialization occurring in the small digital space overlaid on top; the primary difference is that this social interaction is implicit, channeled through inanimate objects including technology. It suggests yet another alternative addendum to Whyte’s belief: people attracted to other people via things [that interest them] rather than people simply attracted to other people.
While there has undoubtedly been a change in the individual’s perception of these small urban spaces, and alterations to what people are ultimately attracted to, the necessary comfort and need for social interaction – by any mean of its definition – still attracts people. This suggests a final reinterpretation of the design intent surrounding small urban spaces. Whereas before successful plazas and small urban spaces were designed around the concept of social congestion via open seating that appealed to draw people in for social interaction (on the premise of people attracted to other people), now spaces should be designed around the concept of social comfort via open seating that appeals to draw people in for implicit social comfort around the technological bubble (on the premise of people attracted to what interests them). The actual design of the small urban spaces remains the same in both scenarios, with the addendums proposed only establishing a shift in the causes for the final designs. In a way, Whyte addresses this shift as a simple fact – back before the technological bubble came to be. “The busiest places tend to be the places where one desires to be alone…” he narrates in his accompanying film documentary over footage of a man idly sitting alone and visibly talking to himself in a public space.
Because the final designs in both scenarios remain the same, with marginal readjustment in their causal interpretations, the design of urban spaces may continue to perform their one and only goal of being appropriately occupiable, nothing more, nothing less. “It is difficult to design a space that does not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished” (Whyte, film). There’s no need to over-complexify occupiable space, like John Portman’s design of the micro-urban space in the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, which seeks to confuse and disrupt the cognitive processes of its occupants so as make them submissive to the design and forced to act fully within the space (i.e. it can be extrapolated that the design encourages interaction with the physical space rather than, say, the small digital space of technology abstractly overlaid on top of it [see Computer City]). (Figures 2, 3) The better solution remains in the simple – in what works – like the Seagram Plaza, which Whyte himself spent a majority of his time studying for Spaces. (Figures 4, 5) The subtlety of its open design and available seating continues to attract people to occupy the space, despite the occupants’ new trends in technological use when in the space.
Lastly, public spaces should avoid being designed as large public spaces. There’s a reason small urban spaces are deemed more successful, because of their more attune attraction factor, as dictated by Whyte. Though designers today may argue that larger public spaces offer the ability to promote even higher sociability via the use of programmable space in the larger area plazas, this ultimately neglects several key factors in social theory. By spreading out occupants, the desire for detachment from society (Badger) into handheld devices is reduced since there is little to detach from. Moreover, the larger area results in minimal nonhuman objects with which occupants can form implicit social interactions. The results are feelings of uncertainty and discomfort among occupants that lead them to seek out the comfort of smaller public spaces, again reinforcing the notion that while addendums to Whyte’s principle that people are attracted to other people may have come about, his ultimate conclusion that the social interaction phenomena surrounding public spaces is inherent and unchangeable remains valid.
Badger, Emily. "How Smart Phones Are Turning Our Public Places Into Private Ones." CityLab. The Atlantic, 16 May 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Benartzi, Shlomo, and Jonah Lehrer. The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior. New York City: PORTFOLIO, 2015. Print.
Cerulo, Karen A.. “Nonhumans in Social Interaction.” Annual Review of Sociology 35 (2009): 531-552. Web.
Francine K. Schlosser. “So, How Do People Really Use Their Handheld Devices? An Interactive Study of Wireless Technology Use.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 23.4 (2002): 401-423. Web.
Hoop, Katrina C.. “Comte Unplugged: Using a “Technology Fast” to Teach Sociological Theory.” Teaching Sociology 40.2 (2012): 158-165. Web.
Laidlaw, Kaitlin E. W. et al.. “Potential Social Interactions Are Important to Social Attention.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108:14 (2011): 5548-5553. Web.
Mesquita, Anabela, and Chia-Wen Tsai. "Human Behavior, Psychology, and Social Interaction in the Digital Era." IGI Global, 2015. Print.
Whyte, William H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington, D.C.: Conservation Foundation, 1980. Print.
Whyte, William H.. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Conservation Foundation, 1980. Film.
What defines a city? Often from an architect’s point of view, the city, the metropolitan area, the “megalopolis,” 1 is merely a continuous amalgamation of buildings. The incessant collection of increasing positive space. Architects as urban planners, on the other hand, have, in recent decades begun to see the city in a different lens, interpreting the urban sphere – from a built perspective – in the sense of “space as a three-dimensional void; an existing datum separate from the by-product of the three-dimensional mass [volume] imagined by architects.” 2 With this understanding it would seem that architecture and the city are more closely molded by criteria such as streets, avenues, walkways, and constructed openings, all – more often than not – public spaces in an urban setting. Of these criteria, there is perhaps nothing so influential as the public square, instances of “small urban spaces,” as defined by William H. Whyte in his research for The Street Life Project (est 1971). In his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), and accompanying film of the same title, Whyte delves into the nuances of social urban patterns that define the occupancy and utilization of such spaces, thereby proving their significance in an urban setting. What Whyte’s study lacks, however, is an intelligent investigation of the public square’s relationship to the built city, best understood as a functional space influenced by various design and city planning factors, often entangled with supervising governments and municipalities. Perhaps the best-known historical examples that fully understand the multiple iterations a “small public space” might take while also exemplifying the deeply developed background of urban planning surrounding public squares would be the series of Place Royales initiated in various cities throughout France in the 17th and 18th centuries under the French Ancien Régime. The concept of a Place Royale is an advantageous case study in the planning of public urban squares in Western culture because of its ability to scope in on a specific set of various existing squares, while also scoping out to wider-ranged political movements and a more zoomed-out urban design schematic.
In the generalist of terms, Place Royales were commonplace commissions in France during the height of its Ancien Régime. “During the period of the 17th and 18th centuries, the term Place Royale, frequently used as a place [the French translation for a public square] name in the early seventeenth century, acquired a specific meaning as a particular type of design of public space created to glorify the reigning monarch.” 3 These monarchs, namely Louis XIV and Louis XV, proposed upwards of twenty-five Place Royales throughout the country, the staples of which – Place des Victoires in Paris and Place Louis XV in Reims – epitomize the popular French square schematic with their powerful central statues of propaganda lavishly surrounded by beautifully designed facades.
It should be noted, however, that of these trending places, nearly all were done outside any direct governmental mandate. Limited finances circulating through the French monarchy prevented simple maneuvers of any regency initiated propaganda, as was historically custom in more ancient times such as the Roman Empire. Rather, the proposal and eventual commission of Place Royales were done under the veil as acts of homage financed from either provincial or municipal treasuries. The steps required to tiptoe around the these investments “required the cooperation of a constellation of government officials, financiers, architects, and sculptors,” 4 and could be seen more or less as an evolution of Italy’s already evolved tactics of forming open civic public spaces in the early middle ages. In those times, Italian cities produced their own unique spatial institutions separate from a greater, national sphere of influence; run by “assemblies of citizens complemented by appointed non-native officials such as the podesta and the capitano del popolo in whom civil investments were made.” 5 In France’s Ancien Régime, the start of a royal square began with a proposal, directed through to either the Conseil des Depêches or the Conseil des Finances depending on who was prepared to propose it and where the money was expected to come from. These place proposers and investors – while independent from the crown – were often “offered tangible rewards and gestures such as pensions or promotions or tax relief to municipal and provincial governments;” 6 thereby separating the urban site from the monarchy whilst maintaining direct oversight of its institutionalized propaganda. Nevertheless, the place would fall into the hands of provincial intendants within the ministry of finance, a standardized social group of aristocrats and the occasional elitist bourgeoisie; very much in line with the early medieval Italian city-state civic structure.
However, before such informal French procedures took hold, the spatial designation of a Place Royale necessitated both urban and aesthetic developments and understandings – before the rise of Louis XIV and Louis XV’s respective reigns. France’s royal squares are best traced back to what is now commonly called Place des Vosges in Paris. Located in the Marais district with near proximity to the Bastille, Place des Vosges is the oldest planned square in the metropolis and the first of five proposed royal Parisian squares, thus making it the first Place Royale, as it was formerly named. The place was initiated under Henry IV in 1605 with a deliberate civic intent to define a public space that could transition Paris out of the middle ages. It was designed in the likeness of colonnaded squares from the Italian Renaissance, and Henry IV dutifully made sure the buildings defining the perimeter were made solely from stone and brick, so as to separate it from the medieval timber construction methods prevalent in the city at the time; all part of Henry IV’s attempt to “make Paris one of the jewels of Europe.” 7 Despite these influences, the square was deliberately shaped as a uniform square, a notable change from the often more elongated rectangular shapes of Renaissance public spaces. This falls in line with the growing Parisian nature of elegance in symmetry, and most likely was a thoughtful decision to heighten the importance of the residential townhouses that lined the square, ultimately making Place des Vosges the most glamorous and fashionable places to live in Paris at the time, with Henry IV’s own reserved house the single townhouse taller than the rest. 8
Nevertheless, Place des Vosges – the original Place Royale – failed to fully live up to a Place Royale’s “purest form, distinguished from other types of places by the presence of a statue of the king amid buildings of uniform and ennobling design.” 9 Rather, the place saw an evolution into the hallmark style. Whereas Henry IV saw his Place Royale as an urban space devoted to the betterment of the city, his successors saw the spaces as viable means of social propaganda. In 1639, Place des Vosges would finally come into possession of its own central and monumental sculpture, an equestrian bronze statue of Henry IV’s son, King Louis XIII, commissioned and partly financed by Cardinal Richelieu, a powerful French statesman seeking favor with the king. Despite this sculpture eventually being torn down in August of 1792 amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, the statue’s introduction into the popular public urban space is important as it brought about much discussion regarding the formalities of a Place Royale in Ancien Régime France. “Jacques-François Blondel and other architectural writers of the eighteenth century, such as Jean-Louis de Cordemoy and Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, criticized the facades of the townhouses as inelegant and complained that the vast dimensions of the place dwarfed the statue.” 10 The resulting movement saw French designers within the Académie Royale d’Architecture work to plan statue and place together as a single entity. This solution stemmed two major urban design frameworks. First, it brought the direction and development of future Place Royales across the country into a densely layered political and financial process. Second, it opened the gate for a Place Royale to become a key part of French urban design.
Moving forward, the design specifications of most Place Royales fell into the hands of Henry IV’s established Bâtiments du Roi, a division in the Ancien Régime responsible for building works affiliated with the crown. The proposals and funding methods remained consistently dense and obtuse, but the overall project intentions became the responsibility of France’s premier architecte du roi, chiefly beginning with Jules Hardouin-Mansart – a well-regarded affiliate of additions to the Palace of Versailles in 1678. The premier architecte’s dominating oversight over Place Royale is exemplified in the Place Royale planned for Marseille; wherein Mansart is known to have heavily supervised Pierre Puget’s mutual designs of place and statue devoted to Louis XIV. “The reasons for such close supervision likely had to do more with maintaining control over the sculptural program than with coordinating the relative proportions of statues and places, which were governed by simple and usually unstated rules of thumb.” 11 Mansart would eventually go on to replace Puget’s work with schematics of his own that better appealed to Louis XIV as a more isolated instance of regality within the city.
In the decades to follow, however, the subsequent premier architectes lacked the authoritative control Mansart once had. As France moved into the reign of Louis XV, the independent agencies, investors, and financial groups sponsoring Place Royales began to push the Bâtiments out of design and aesthetic regulation. “By the mid-eighteenth century, contracts for the statues of Place Royales no longer routinely subordinated the sculptors to architects; coordination of statue and setting were assured through the inclusion of appropriate instructions.” 12 This marks the vital shift of Place Royale as not only an urban space of design intent and formality, but now, with a growing outside influence beyond the regency, an urban space set on becoming a part of urban planning. This is especially relevant in the rising number of places beyond the scope of Paris.
However, even the metropolis urban center of Paris saw a rise in public urban planning methodology surrounding its proposed places. For the projected Louis XV Place Royale in 1782, Charles François Paul Lenormant de Tournehem of the Bâtiments performed an unprecedented request to open the place up to all members of the Académie Royale d’Architecture for proposals of overall site, building, and sculpture design. What followed was an impressive boast of Parisian citizens imbuing broader ideas of city planning surrounding the future Place Royale in the approximately one hundred and fifty project submissions. “Many designers used the place as a point of departure for studies of streets, markets, and water supplies, the construction of a new city hall and other military and governmental buildings, and comparisons of the city’s overall appearance with other European capitals.” 13 Unfortunately for Paris’ potential urban development, the king ultimately had his say, selecting a project locating Place Louis XV on undeveloped land on the western edge of the city, consequently drawing public criticism for not taking advantage of a redevelopment opportunity. This marks an affirmative dissonance between how the public saw the utilization of their communal urban spaces and how the crown attempted to administer them, ultimately sowing the seeds of the soon to come French Revolution.
Nonetheless, there is irony in the discord between the public’s perception of its urban space and the governments. Both felt their respective interpretations tied directly to the more antiquated design intentions of public squares of past. The urban planners saw the redevelopment opportunities Place Royales offered as extensions of ancient Greek agoras, seamlessly intertwining positive and negative space – the built volumes and the open space around them – and “empirically developed and placed according to major structures and overall changes throughout the city.” 14 Perhaps this is best reflected in the growing trend for the Académie sculptors to be methodical in how they worked to sculpt and frame views and perspectives of a place to on comers or passerby’s – it was understood that in Paris, specifically, often sites and dimensions of places were not determined until work on the statue was well advanced. Or, better still, Place Royales commissioned in cities such as “Bordeaux, Nancy, and Reims being linked to comprehensive programs of street widenings and extensions that were intended to beautify, facilitate commerce, and make the city more readily knowable and predictable,” 15 contrasted with the government’s more authoritative perception of places within Paris, often seen as “isolated islands of splendor.” To the crown, these instances of propagandist urban spaces seemed akin to the dominating imperial forums, arches, and columns of the Roman Empire.
But with the Place Louis XV proposals and the many “points of departure” design methodologies, France was nevertheless on the verge of interpreting urban spaces more decisively, “visualizing the streets as rivers, channeling the stream of human communication – which means much more than mere technical ‘traffic’ – with the square representing a natural or artificial lake dictating the flux of life not only within its own confines but also through the adjacent streets for which it forms a quasi estuary.” 16 This is particularly exemplified by another Place Louis XV proposal located in Bordeaux wherein Claude Boucher and Jacques Gabriel – premier architecte du roi at the time – planned for the place to act as “an integral part of the commercial life of the city and envisioning it as the first stage in transformation of Bordeaux from a walled, inwardly directed city to an efficient seaport.” 17 The initiative included the integration of civic institution buildings such as customs, a stock exchange, and offices, which, consequently, sparked disagreement with higher government officials who feared for the safety of the royal statue centered in an area of such commonplace activity. This again highlights the disillusion between public space as propagandist urban areas versus public space as “functional webs of kinesthetic relations to a greater town, village, or city.” 18
In his text, Town and Square: From the Agora to the Village Green, Paul Zucker works to define the formulaic approach to understanding the spatial qualities of urban squares. To him, the square in urbanity becomes a volume itself, a three-dimensional expansion defined by surrounding structures, the expanse of its ground plane, and even the imaginary span of the sky. 19 With Place Royales, these instances have all generally come to be true. Their site location and city relation act as extensions of ground plane, often influenced and determined by the architect, whose primary focus was the drawings and specifications of the surrounding facades and buildings. 20 While although the imaginative sky plane – the overhead boundary of the urban space – can be understood to be framed by the architect’s design of the place, it must be remembered that often this design came following the artist’s intentions of the sculpture. Moreover, the idea of an imaginative spatially boundary implies further sense of the designing of viewpoints and perspectives, which has already been established as being under the direction of the sculptor.
Zucker, however, further addresses that urban spaces have often in history been defined by more than the mere three-dimensional elements, recognizing that public squares vary greatly in frequency and distribution across nations of similar geographic locations and therefore implying the heavy role governments and institutions have on urban spaces’ resurrections. 21 This understanding can be extrapolated into a fourth-dimensional boundary, the social, economical, and political influence that backdrops a public space. Reverting back to Cleary’s view of Place Royale in its purest form, with “the presence of a statue of the king amid buildings of uniform and ennobling design;” 22 this fourth-dimensional border is both realistically and spatially apparent in the central statue.
Lastly, if the architect’s role in a Place Royale design process consisted of the surrounding structures as well as the expanse of the ground plane, while on the other end the sculptor’s role consisted of the imaginative framework of views and the overarching spheres of France’s intuitions’ influences, then one could argue that architect and sculptor had equal affiliation with the formation of the public spaces. Moreover, since the architects at the time were correlated almost exclusively with the Bâtiments du Roi while the sculptors and artists were associated with the Académie Royale d’Architecture, and since as the Ancien Régime progressed with the development of Place Royales the Bâtiments become more or less isolated to the crown whereas the Académie became a representation of French citizens, then it can be inferred that the evolution of the spatial development of Place Royale in France reflects a growth in the rise of urban planning as a flexible network between city and government.
The concept of Place Royale as a foundation for the future of the development of Western small public spaces and their subsequent urban planning methodologies relies heavily on their numerous iterations throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The densely layered and heavily controlled channels in which their designs, promotions, and commissions spurred from laid the groundwork for the eventual duality behind the urban place in France, with this duality highlighted both visibly in its formation of space and center statue and obscurely with its widespread spheres of influence. Perhaps all these growing trends can be dated back to Henry IV and what is now called Place des Vosges, which not only acted as the original Place Royale but also sparked the intricate measures of cooperation in places thereafter, places that would, in time, go on to define many of France’s cities.
1 See Jean Gottman, Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, (Geographical Review, 52, no. 3, 1962)
2 Paul Zucker, Town and Square: From the Agora to the Village Green, (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1970), ii
3 Richard Louis Cleary, The Place Royale and Urban Design in the Ancien Regime, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4
4 Cleary, The Place Royale, 4
5 Eamonn Canniffe, The Politics of the Piazza: The History and Meaning of the Italian Square, (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008), 54
6 Cleary, The Place Royale, 12
7 Sandrine Voillet, Paris: City of Dreams, (BBC One, 2007)
9 Cleary, The Place Royale, 4
10 Ibid., 5
11 Cleary, The Place Royale, 35-36
12 Ibid., 39
13 Ibid., 8
14 Jere Stuart French, Urban Space: A Brief History of the City Square, 2nd Edition, (Pomona: California State Polytechnic University Press, 1978), 51-53
15 Cleary, The Place Royale, 108
16 Zucker, Town and Square, 2
17 Cleary, The Place Royale, 7
18 Zucker, Town and Square, 5
19 Ibid., 3
20 Cleary, The Place Royale, 39
21 Zucker, Town and Square, 5
22 Cleary, The Place Royale, 4
Canniffe, Eamonn. The Politics of the Piazza: The History and Meaning of the Italian Square. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.
Cerver, Francisco Asensio, and Michael Webb. Redesigning City Squares and Plazas. New York, NY: Arco for Hearst Books International, 1997.
Cleary, Richard Louis. The Place Royale and Urban Design in the Ancien Regime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
French, Jere Stuart. Urban Space: A Brief History of the City Square, 2nd Edition. Pomona: California State Polytechnic University Press, 1978
Jean Gottman, Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, (Geographical Review, 52, no. 3, 1962)
Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982.
Whyte, William H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York: Project for Public Spaces, 2001.
Voillet, Sandrine. Paris: City of Dreams. BBC One. 2007.
Zucker, Paul. Town and Square: From the Agora to the Village Green. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1970.
It goes without saying that the crux of anthropological and archaeological studies of ancient societies relies heavily on the interpretation of objects. Objects, in the broadest terms, covering a wide spectrum of things from art to tools to rock formations to grandly constructed monuments – all matters constituting towards positive space analysis. Yet, in the same vein as the laws of physics, these positive objectifications – and subsequent interpretations – cannot be fully realized without taking into consideration the interpretations of their mirrored counterparts.
In ancient Mesoamerican societies, there is increasing evidence that supports the importance of these counterparts, or open spaces, in such ancient urban environments. While the extent and quality of emphasis placed on open spaces various across the various Mesoamerican societies, all have been found to associate such spaces with reverence and mythical connotations. These symbolic associations can and will be explored in great depth through the lens of the Maya, drawing evidence from a variety of visual, spatial, archeological, and linguistic research. Moreover, the understanding of these interpretations can allow for a more practical application of how Mesoamericans employed urban design tactics, drawing from both Maya and modern urban frameworks. The core of this research lies in culminating broad Maya symbolism with narrow archeological case studies, ultimately utilizing modern systems such as New Urban Design Theory to reflect on the progressive urban structure of ancient civilizations in the Mesoamerican region.
Part I : Interpreting and Understanding Negative Space in Mesoamerican Cultures
Across the studies of all civilizations, there exist innumerable theses linking the erection of monumental architecture in societies, new and old, with important political, social, and economical issues. With the physical materialization of positive space, societies are capable of manifesting a display of power. These are often attributed to instances such as the dedication and erection of public monuments, the use of symbolic objects, the use of written documents, or the participation in and sponsoring of ceremonial events (DeMarrais et al., 1996). For the most part, researchers are quick to attribute power – and with it, collective urbanity – to these physical expressions. Aldo Rossi (1982) even goes so far to address the architecture and urbanism of the evolving concept of city purely within the realm of positive and programmatic construction. But the evolution of urban design is not only an evolution of structure, rather, a continuing back and forth relationship between positive architecture and the negative space surrounding it. Spaces, even open ones, are capable of representing monument in a different sense. “For urban environments to be connected, a variety of integrative methods are required to rectify differing scales of interaction: transport, culture, politics, economics, etc.” (Peuramaki-Brown, 2013). From this, the importance of negative urban spaces becomes pivotal as they systematically “offer each member of a society an image of membership and social visage” (Lefebvre, 1991: 220) whilst congregating the articulation of expected public behavior. These negative spaces are, after all, public spaces, both large and small.
One might assume the interpretation of negative public space as a more modern notion; however, despite the colossal significance surrounding physical monuments of ancient origins, there is increasing evidence supporting the deliberate use of public spaces and urban design methodologies in primitive societies and civilizations. Beyond the extents of the Greco-Roman based European model for public spaces and large density urbanism, there exist many instances of negative urban awareness in low-density tropical urban regions. Examples of open urban spaces have been discovered in sites spanning all across the ancient Mesoamerican regions, from prime civilizations to their anteceding societies. A selection of examples of sites include the grand central plaza of Tenochtitlán by the Aztecs [Figure 01], the site plan and structure of Tikal by Classic Maya, and sunken courts at Teopantecuanitlán by early cradle civilizations such as the Olmecs.
From early Mesoamerican beginnings in the archaic and early formative period, concepts of space were already beginning to be established. These initial urban settlements, primarily in the Olmec heartland, though distributed throughout the region, concentrated themselves around “the shaping of open space or volumes by architectural monuments that use religious symbolism to reinforce the creation myths and other sacred rituals” (Wagner, 2013: 3), establishing early on Mesoamerican notions of sacred ceremonial precincts. It was the archaic nomads who, upon settling and taking up agriculture, linked the concept of place with a highly venerated spiritual meaning. Their settlement was, after all, their source of life and sustenance. To properly honor this mystic expression, unbuilt space was allocated for communal gathering and ritual, and, according to Wagner, the two open spaces that resulted (sacred open space and communal open space), eventually evolved into the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican spaces of the sacred patio and public plaza.
The spatial formation and definition of these places among the Maya and other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations revolve around two naturally recurring phenomena, both intrinsically linked with indigenous mythos and theology. The forefront phenomenon is the landscape of the earth, which frequently manifests itself in various Mesoamerican belief systems. For example, translated versions of the sacred Maya text, Popol Vuh, express the creation of the world and universe around the uplifting of sky, earth, mountains and nature from the primordial sea, which existed before all else (Wagner, 2013: 6). Karl Taube (1989) elaborates this expression in the Mesoamerican’s belief that the crust of the earth exists atop these primordial waters, with the world existing as the shell of a floating crocodile, or caiman, though the floating creature is subject to other interpretations. In the instance of a Classic Maya open ceremonial space at Yaxchilán, a carved stone caimon stands free in full relief, implying the open communal place to be representative of the mythical sea [Figure 02]. Wagner infers that subsequent urban evolution mirrors the Maya myth of creation, wherein open public spaces symbolizing the spiritual sea are recognized by Mesoamerican societies first, and then from these occurrences structures such as temples, pyramids, or other civic buildings are risen up. Solidifying this interpretation is a linguistic correlation in Classic Maya texts expanded upon by Freidel, Schele, and Parker (1993: 139), in which the Mayan word nab (sometimes naab) equates an understanding of both “plaza” as well as larger bodies of water such as a “lake” or a “lagoon.”
The other influential phenomena that shaped ancient Mesoamerican urbanity is cosmology, the “Upper World” in the Maya belief system that existed as a continuum of the primordial sea – the “Under World” – via a series of blurred layers bordering the extents of the middle-hung earth (Sharer, Traxler, 2006: 720-732). “In general, Mesoamerican architectural alignments clearly cluster around certain azimuthal values, following patterns that are clearly dictated by the use of astronomical bodies at the horizon as reference objects” (Šprajc et al, 2009). This is evident at Maya sites of the Petén region in Guatemala such as El Mirador, Uaxactún, and Tikal. With regards to the five towering pyramids at the Tikal site, Vincent H. Malmström (2010), a researcher from Dartmouth, discusses the alignment and orientation of the temples corresponding with the sunset and sunrise of certain equinoxes. Moreover, the azimuth angles from one temple to the next (for instance Temple I to Temple IV, seen from Temple V, marks an angle of 15.5Mo to the north, corresponding with the alignment of the “Street of the Dead” at Teotihuacán) form a primitive “astronomical matrix” used for calendric calculations and, consequently, religious celebrations.
Beyond astrology’s influence on monuments of a constructed manifestation (positive, built up space), there remains a seamless narrative of influence on the negative, urban spaces between these structures. In continuing with the analysis of Tikal, the Classic Maya civilization site orients its larger urban layout to that of a “triad-centering” open space design [Figure 03]. This terminology refers to a particular arrangement of three temples that 1) signifies the three stones of creation from Popol Vuh and 2) aligns with the three triangularly positioned stars in the Orion constellation (Freidel et al, 1993: 78-80, 85). With the triad triangulation deemed sacred, it echoes throughout the urban spaces of Maya civilizations. The Tikal site sports “three original urban nodes built on elevated human-made platforms and connected by raised artificial causeways to form an urban sized triangle” as a means of social, theological, and political congregation and flow (Wagner, 2013: 21).
Another form of urban spaces is a tighter adaptation of Schele’s defined “triad-centering,” which are Mesoamerican U-shaped courts, or “basic plaza grouping” according to George Andrews in his book Maya Cities (1977). In plan, these U-shaped open spaces appear as expected, with two smaller structures flanking a larger one, sometimes skewed or offset to open the space and enhance the experience of the public realm [Figure 04]. Wagner asserts precedent found in other Mesoamerican art and images wherein this U-shape (or, a C, depending on its orientation) is a spatial stand-in for both interior and exterior spaces, often of the elite nature. For instance, a Mixtec codex features a geometric U-shape, above which float several dignified figures. The use of the word float is deliberate, as the negative space defined by the U is interpreted as a body of water artistically symbolizing the primordial sea while visually acting as a physical plaza space. This Mexica imagery, properly part of Codex Zouche-Nuttall, fully embodies the linguistic dualism of naab as previously discussed, while also spatially adhering to known Maya civilization site precedents.
Also featured in the codex imagery is an artistic graphic of altepetl, or “water mountain.” With the concept of water so closely entwined with Mesoamerican mythology, most civilizations identified and venerated their respective water sources. Often, rivers flowed from fresh water aquifers within nearby mountains, particularly in the Valley of Mexico region. Susan Toby Evans (2013: 139) elaborates on altepetls in her text:
In Aztec times, the term denoting ‘city-state’ was composed of the words ‘water’ and ‘mountain’ [altepetl] to express the convergence of water with the mountain around which powerful spiritual forces gather. These traditions of veneration have very ancient roots, and we see artistic and ritual expression of such beliefs in the early Olmecs and other Mesoamericans. Caves were also held to be sacred, representing passageways to the interior of the living earth, and are orifices of the earth as a living being.
It is worth noting that the depictions and symbolic glyphs of altepetls differ across Mesoamerican societies as graphic representations change based on varying unique geographies. However, certain details remain consistent, namely the rising of the lobed earth mound from an inverted U-shape meant to represent the cave containing a water source [Figure 06]. This recurrence of the U-shape coincides with previously discussed U-shaped spaces and the symbolic correlation of the open spaced plaza as a body of water.
Additionally recognized Mesoamerican negative space layouts include quadrangle arrangements. Perhaps more readily likened with better-known European counterparts, the Mesoamerican quadrangles have a history and sanctity of their own, with the repetitive and cyclic nature of the number 4 also intrinsically associated with the Maya story of creation (Freidel et al, 1993: 53). At Tikal, for instance, there exist several residential formations comprised of both U-shaped open spaces and quadrangles [Figure 07]. The processional linking of architecture to and from these spaces indicates an urban design evolution as the site expanded. Wagner sites Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s (1963: 16) phasing reenactment of urban construction at the site of Uaxactún, a coexisting precedent site approximately 24 km north of Tikal [Figures 08, 09]. She outlines the first phase of design developing under a triad-centering scheme, and then progressing into a U-shaped court. Later developments saw the addition of structures closing off the U-shaped space into a quadrangle with additional perpendicular structures stemming out, thereby forming a newly rendered U-shaped plaza. The progression of development can continue indefinitely, and becomes the foundation of positive and negative space relations in urban design among the Maya.
In the same way the triad-centering and U-shaped spaces derive their design qualities from many shaping factors, the same applies to open quadrangle spaces of the Maya, the schematics of which are influenced beyond the enclosed boundaries of four surrounding structures. The distinct, four-lobed symbol of a quatrefoil is embedded in Mesoamerican culture, and was identified by Carolyn E. Tate (1995) as an associative geometry of supernatural portals. “Known in Mayan as ol, the quatrefoil is synonymous with that most important portal to the supernatural world. Used to frame ballcourt markers, sacrificial bowls, and ornamental ritual garments, the quatrefoil invariably invokes supernatural access” (Wagner, 2013: 14). The Classic Site of Machaquilá, for example, hosts a sunken court or plaza of negative space, free-floating from other structures [Figure 10]. The void is outlined in a rudimentary quatrefoil shape. But perhaps the most well preserved instance of a quatrefoil space lies at the Middle Formative site of La Blanca in Guatemala. Here, a symmetrical quatrefoil is recessed into the ground, comprised of sunken reliefs to flow water into the space and feasibly act as a reflective pool [Figure 11]. This again links together the Maya understanding of plaza and water as one in the same, while also spatially integrating the quatrefoil geometry. Linda Schele (1998: 45, 193) supports this further with her linguistic link of the Maya glyph for naab being a logographic depiction of a quatrefoil.
From the triad-centering of 3, to the quadrangle spaces denoting 4, the last negative spatial advancement furthers the quadrangle space into a more graphical representation of the numeric 5, the spatial understanding of which is called a “quincunx” by researchers. Essentially, with the connecting of a quadrangle’s corners (or any square for that matter) by an X, a center rising structure at the intersection of the lines establishes a fifth point, and, with it, a symbolic Mesoamerican quincunx shape [Figure 12]. “In many instances, the center of the quincunx is represented by the World Tree, its roots penetrating the nine levels of the Under World, its branches extending skyward to reach the thirteen levels of the heaves” (Wagner, 2013: 26). The centerpiece, the “axis mundi” as it’s referred to, is symbolized and appears in inscriptions with the Mayan word beh, which translates to “road,” but can also be interpreted as an individual’s spiritual path. By relating the axis mundi, the quincunx, and beh as road, there’s an interpretation to correlate quincunx with the negative streetscapes and pathways in Maya urban design. These paths are often referred to by scholars as sacbeob, or individually as a sacbe, and link, once again, the mystic to the open spaces of Mesoamerican urbanity, thereby heightening the importance of the negative.
The last dominant variant of open public urban spaces in Mesoamerican cultures is the popularized presence of ballcourt spaces. The Popol Vuh and Maya creation story embody stories of divine beings competing in ballcourt games, so the significance Mesoamerican cultures placed on the spaces is expected, but their voided shapes and forms are iconic and worth investigating. Wagner (2013: 28) sports a collection of references to interpret these negative spaces and their formal attributions.
Mesoamerican ballcourts generally form an I-shape when viewed in plan (Miller and Taube, Gods and Symbols). The earliest forms of the Mesoamerican ballcourt consist of twin parallel mounds that create a symbolic crevice, canyon, or gash in the earth’s crust, associated with the mythological crack in the turtle’s shell, and therefore a portal to Xibalba and the world of the supernatural. As Schele and Mathews note in Code of Kings (1998: 207), ‘The word crevice is the word for ballcourt in the Popol Vuh of the K’iche’ Maya.’ They continue, ‘As a crevice into the surface of the earth, the ballcourt gives human beings access to the Otherworld where the Gods and ancestors live.’ Many ballcourts have markers that portray the quatrefoil shape, confirming their status as portals to the Under World, and, seen in section, the profile shape of a ballcourt is that of a half quatrefoil, not unlike Monument 1 of Chalcatzingo.
It’s also worth mentioning that the negative void of the sunken ballcourt mirrors the pyramidal mountain forms of positive spaces Mesoamerican architecture [Figures 13, 14]. This mirroring strengthens the dualistic relationship between negative and positive spaces in Mesoamerican urbanity.
Finally, this back and forth matching of positive built space and negative open spaces present at Mesoamerican sites redefines the ancient connotation of urban monument erection. DeMarrais et al (1996) rightly acknowledged the powerful implications constructed material forms had on power in ancient societies; however, when monument begins to be perhaps more appropriately defined as an urban instance of membership allocated towards a community sentiment or identity (i.e. cultural heritage), then with Mesoamerican communities, the open negative spaces themselves become places of monument. This assumption is appropriate for a culture embedded in framing spiritual awareness and natural connections. For a society of people wanting to recognize and revere their structured pyramids as emulations of nearby sacred mountain landscapes, an exterior observing space must be provided to align the two views together. Moreover, these spaces become imperative to the interworking of an urban designed society as spatially they establish integrative rectifications of interactions in the political, cultural, social, and economic realms.
Part II : Applying Modern Urban Design to Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Societies
Today, there are numerous facets and methodologies one may use when attempting urban design. In fact, urbanity as a whole is considered to have developed tremendously in recent centuries. A selection of these design structures includes New Urban Design Theory, Everyday Urbanism, and Post Urbanism. These urban frameworks orient themselves around realistic approaches to utopian idealism, and work towards the restructuring of civilized cityscapes on both a positive and negative spatial level. However, systematic urban design structure has existed for many millennia, and while it’s already been previously established that ancient Mesoamerican societies utilized and revered open spaces, this understanding can be developed further by integrating these interpretations of space into modern frameworks of urban design.
Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown (2013) takes an in-depth look at urbanity in the ruins of the Classic Maya site of Buenavista del Cayo located adjacent to the Lower Mopan River of west-central Belize. By framing the southern settlement of the site (BVS-007) in the context of New Urban Design Theory (NUDT), her observations draw a number of parallels to modern understandings of space in urban settings, even for a relatively smaller density tropical urban settlement.
NUDT is outlined best in its suggested relationship between spatial design and the integrated social community (Ellis, 2002), much like Jane Jacobs (1964) progressive understandings of urban renewal in the mid-twentieth century that advocated heavily for the active cooperation between people and space. Her coined term “eyes on the street,” though modern, can be readily applied in ancient Maya scenarios. This NUDT interplay of urban systems and places consists of spaces that: “1) foster associations with well-defined spatial communities, and encourage face-to-face time; 2) provide accessibility while maintaining control and security which aids in the maintenance of boundaries; 3) contain architecture and design that engages public interaction and generates traffic; 4) create a sense of place through close attention to landscape, design, placement, group conformity, and the environmental and social cognition of residents; 5) provide a counter pressure to private life, and serve a symbolic “heart” for a community; and 6) promote mixed land use” (Peuramaki-Brown, 2013) This framework of one particular urban design theory is applied to the southern settlement of Buenavista del Cayo via assessing the collection of positive and negative spaces that comprise the archeological site.
The BVS-007 settlement situates itself just south of the urban Buenavista center, which hosts more monumental architecture and plaza spaces. Of the settlement zone are two primary residential clusters, BVS-007-1 to the East and of closer proximity to the “downtown” urban center, and BVS-007-2 to the West, which sits adjacent to the Mopan River [Figure 15]. The interpretation of these ancient Maya domestic zones, working in tandem with one another, the urban center, and the geographical landscape, is important when seeking a holistic understanding of a society’s urban design. Additionally, the clear allocation of clustered zones already supports the first characteristic of NUDT, which seeks to foster associations within well-defined spatial communities by establishing face-to-face interactions among the residents.
While the separation of clusters is, in part, the result of the landscaped terrain, the split communities still remains intrinsically ideal and benefits the overall urban plan. First, with the entirety of the BVS-007 zone situated on the narrowest portion of the landscape, BVS-007-1 and BVS-007-2 are divided onto both the north-facing slope and the south-facing slope, respectively. “This effectively creates what is termed a ‘corridor’ in NUDT: a connector and separator of neighborhoods… creating an effective environment in the promotion of control and security within the neighborhoods and subsequent traffic to the urban ‘downtown’” (Peuramaki-Brown, 2013). Furthermore, it exemplifies Jane Jacobs’ extension of NUDT, “eyes of the street,” wherein each residential cluster is allotted necessary line of sights that promote urban security. For instance, with BVS-007-1 oriented on the northern slope, closer to the urban center, and to the east, the residents have better visuals of strangers approaching the urban “downtown” via the eastern entry sacbe, as well as a view of any traveler attempting to approach from the west just North of the residential sector’s protective arroyo (gully). Similarly, BVS-007-2, being situation on the southern slope, has the vantage point of observing all travelers either following the course of the Mopan or navigating to the East just south of the second arroyo barrier.
Together, the two BVS-007 clusters effectively meet NUDT’s second and fourth criterion. They provide accessibility while maintaining control and security, and they establish notable properties of place via close attention to landscape, placement, and group conformity. The latter is expanded upon with Peuramaki-Brown’s inference that the eastern cluster, BVS-007-1 caters towards senior residents while BVS-007-2 hosts junior and lesser citizens, thereby providing an embryonic and social cognition of residents. This is supported with Setha Low’s (1995) statements that “lowland Maya house sites were grouped around plazas… and the social status of house sites was determined by their proximity to the plaza, which were the focus of community life.”
Also discovered in Peuramaki-Brown’s archeological is evidence of BVS-007-2 being abandoned sometime in the Late Classic Maya period. Certain architecture in the cluster zone was torn down for a social renovation of the BVS-007-1 cluster.
This disparity in building chronology may have reflected their alternative functions over the life history of the complex: BVS-007-1 possibly more ritually oriented and associated with local, horizontal, neighborhood identity, versus BVS-007-2 serving a secondary urban administration, or vertical function, although together functioning as a means of a community and civic integration.
This multi-functional use of land upholds NUDT’s third and sixth criterion, and also is a valid assumption when paired with the earlier outlined understanding of Maya spaces. For instance, with BVS-007-1 being the cluster of the closest proximity to the urban plaza center, or the “downtown” urban area, then spatial qualities would obviously express a progression from the area of monument as it transitions towards the social and civic. BVS-007-1’s flatter, plaza-like spaces reflect this urban shift, and cater towards George Andrew’s (1977) illustrations of triad U-shaped spaces progressing into quadrangles progressing into clusters progressing into positively built spaces.
Lastly, the mere zoning of the residential network clusters begins to define an ancient understanding of the relationship between private and civic life. With the progression of the urban center to BVS-007-2 mirrored in a progression of highly ceremonial spaces to highly privatized, junior living spaces, there’s evidence of urban hierarchy. Moreover, the streetscapes and corridors inferred by NUDT applications allocate an artery-like sense of flow and transport in this hierarchal scheme. “If one visualizes the streets as rivers, channeling the stream of human communication – which means much more than mere technical ‘traffic’ – then the square [open space] represents a natural or artificial lake dictating the flux of life not only within its own confines but that also through the continual set of adjacent urban forms” (Zucker, 1959: 22). This statement affirms NUDT criterion number five while also inexplicably linking a Eurocentric idealism of urban spaces with the watery symbolism of Mesoamerican plazas (naab) and thoroughfares (sacbeob).
The extent of Mesoamerican affixation with open spaced plazas and public urban spaces ranges far beyond the Maya specifically. The Aztec and the Mexica shared similar sentiments, and exhibited many different but all the same important urban design precedents. In fact, “Tenochtitlán is probably the clearest source of evidence for indigenous influence on architecture and urban design. Firsthand accounts suggest that the Spanish were impressed by the straight causeways that ran directly into the main ceremonial plaza, and by thy regular plan and urban design of the city in general” (Low, 1995). However, sites such as these are worth investigations of their own, due in part to their advanced urban grid system and subsequent Spanish appropriation. In looking at select Maya site examples, left abandoned to the Mesoamerican forests, there is a far greater understanding of the cultural influence and importance these spaces were attributed. Moreover, their distinct urban design schematics stand in complete isolation from the seemingly standardized Eurocentric notions of public spaces and urban design, all the while effectively being proven to work just as effectively on large-scale urban levels.
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