By Julie Carpenter for ilookup.org
Near the end of 2014, I was creating a walking tour of a historical commercial district about six blocks long. Those six blocks were pretty familiar to me – I had shopped and socialized there for years and had appreciated the mix of Italianate and Queen Anne buildings, the human scale of the streetscape, and the facade ornamentation. But as I prepared for this tour, I noticed signs, architecture, and features that I had never “seen” before – Nicholson pavers, a nineteenth century street sign, an elaborate cornice – which made me think, what else have I overlooked?
I haven’t made a new year’s resolution in over a decade, but based on my experience developing the tour, I decided 2015 would indeed have a resolution: to look more. Apparently, my resolution coincided with some cosmic trend because suddenly prompts to look turned up in unexpected places. At the bookstore I came across Alexandra Horowitz’s book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (shelved in fitness).
Horowitz takes urban walks with experts (geologist, typographer, place maker, sound engineer, naturalist, scientist, and physician) and non-experts (toddler, illustrator, and blind person). Each walker shares their unique perspective on their experience of Horowitz’s typical city walk, which she then tries to incorporate into how she experiences her environment, allowing readers to vicariously tag along.
As I devoured Horowitz’s book, planning springtime walks to take, AIA launched their #ilookup campaign. What a great idea! Engage architects and the rest of us by asking us to look, and share what we see. A perfect fit for my new year’s resolution!
I am a decades long city dweller, trained to avoid eye contact and maintain personal space. I am also a major built environment nerd. I love unusual rooflines, window cornices, and ironwork.
I love the varieties of brick and stone. I love facades, alleys, and chimneys. My loves can only be seen when I ignore the rules of urban life; by looking up and around, as well as down. Looking is often best done standing still, another city sidewalk faux pas but necessary to avoid gawk-n-walk related injuries.
It is currently pretty darn cold in Cincinnati. Not the best walking weather, but bare trees do make this time of year a good time to look up. So in a few brief, well-bundled-up outings, I have been trying to look more carefully at the built environment. Last week I walked down some familiar, well-traveled blocks, and noticed several things I had never seen before – a tiny memorial marker, a beautiful basement window grate, a ghost sign, a fabulous art deco street number, and the stunning top story of an otherwise innocuous building. I’ve been noticing how the city stretches onto the surrounding hills, sometimes successfully integrating buildings and slopes, other structures plonked awkwardly on hilltops. Thanks to an artist friend, I am also paying more attention to shapes and forms of structures, and unusual vantage points.
Are my days of oblivious walking over? Certainly not. As much as I might want to always be mindful and looking, that is an unrealistic, and probably undesirable goal. So I will merely endeavor to live up to my resolution – to look more; not to always look, but to look more often, more closely, more thoughtfully. Hopefully, this new focus will make me more aware, and appreciative, of the built environments I encounter daily.
Follow Julie on Twitter @StrawStickBrick