In the middle of a number of us playing soccer on a delightful summer evening, one of my partner’s grandchildren said, “Look at that sky!” The sky just before sunset was full of large pink, gray, white, and lavender swirling patterns above. How wonderful that she was aware of the beauty around us and shared what she saw. It was riveting. Though we returned to our soccer within moments, we had taken notice.
As it is with the sky, leaves, rocks, flower petals, waves, and other beauties of nature, so it is with the details and features of buildings, public spaces, and landscapes. The architects who have conceived of picturesque features and dynamic structures, the builders who have carried out their visions, the craftspeople and laborers who have painstakingly put in the tiles of a mosaic or carved wood or stone into distinctive, awe-inspiring shapes and figures, the muralists who have envisioned and painted explosions of color on blank spaces…all have worked to create something for our eyes. Their creations simply await our looking and our awareness.
If we open our eyes as we walk around a street in the city or a town, or down a country lane, and look at the buildings and landscapes, we not only will enjoy what our eyes encounter but we will change ourselves and our lives. I liken looking at architectural and design features to what Thich Nhat Hanh has said about eating a tangerine. In his seminal book, Peace Is Every Step, Nhat Hanh wrote, “If I offer you a freshly picked tangerine to enjoy, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on your mindfulness.” In his tangerine meditation, he invited a group of children to each choose a tangerine, to think of its origins from its “mother tree,” and to peel it slowly, smelling its fragrance and noticing its mist. The children then each slowly ate a bite of the tangerine, savoring its texture and juice.
Taking in architectural or building features is like eating a single piece of fruit. We can enjoy the sight, texture, and wonder of each element. I have always loved looking at buildings and landscapes but for a long time I wasn’t sure why. Then it became apparent over time that the details (among other qualities) – a mosaic, a terra cotta figure, a soaring spire, a sleek curve, a mix of stone – have provided such pleasure. When I gaze at the cherubs on the exterior of the Alwyn Court building, I marvel at their expressions and their fingers, toes, and bellies rendered in terra cotta as soft as flesh. Similarly, I feel a world of creatures come alive in the mosaic “When the Animals Speak” on the 34th Street/Penn Station subway platform.
The angelic figures look down from above at Alwyn Court
A segment of Elizabeth Grajales’ “When the Animals Speak”
We often live in our heads more than in our surroundings. We walk with the purpose to get someplace, and our minds are filled with the next deadline, what we will do at our next meeting, what our conversation was with our spouse last night, what our plans will be for the evening or weekend. As I walk in New York and elsewhere, I have found that if I can introduce the slightest bit of aimlessness, slow down for at least a few steps, and breathe deeply, I see many exquisite details and shapes in the buildings and spaces. It is grounding and relaxing, and it creates many happy and serene moments. Something in looking at the eagle on the former subway powerhouse on 11th Avenue, for instance, brings an instant and yet deep sense of power and beauty. Or, a mural that someone has painted on a door of P.S. 152, the School of Science and Technology in Brooklyn, creates a light, joyful feeling.
A watchful eagle on the former New York subway powerhouse
A mural of vibrant colors on a door at P.S. 152 in Brooklyn
This experience is available to us at any time, even with demands and difficulties or when one is filled with anger, sadness, or grief. I remember the day during 1994 that I had to put to sleep my very beloved pet cat, who had been a cherished companion during some difficult times. The sun seemed blinding as I walked with a friend through Central Park. We sat in a gazebo, and I can still see in my mind’s eye the delicate, crafted wooden spindles of that gazebo. It was almost as if someone had created this seat generations ago knowing I would need it and find solace that day. Carefully crafted features speak across the ages and affirm eternity.
When we quiet our minds, details allow us to interact with buildings and landscapes, and we can sense their presence or have a vision from another time period. The building at 1 Broadway (known as the International Mercantile Marine Company Building) in Lower Manhattan prompts such a scene from another era when I look up at its mosaic and terra cotta shields, which have the names of international destinations on them – Liverpool, Gibraltar, Montevideo, Cherbourg, Melbourne, and others. I can sense the travelers who came to this building in the early 20th century to buy their tickets for an ocean voyage. I feel the breezes coming off the New York Harbor and think of its connection to those faraway places. This is how the special touches on a building have a potential to transport us and enliven our imaginations.
A richly adorned shield at 1 Broadway in New York
Car and Consumer Culture
Often, I reflect on how different this is from the buildings we have created in the culture dominated by cars and shopping in recent decades, specifically on suburban roads. Recently, as I traveled by bus on Route 17 in the northern New Jersey suburbs, I noticed that for about 10 miles no features on the buildings, an unrelenting line of shopping centers, big-box stores, and gas stations, drew my interest, curiosity, or attention in the same way. The buildings were very sterile-looking. It is starkly different.
Surrounded by such places, so many of us have lost a reverence for building refinements, art, and even quirkiness due to these settings that are geared not just to speedier travel but primarily to shopping and buying. Not even a window that would entice someone, nor thought to art or pleasure! The contrasts are startling. Yet, thankfully, many people – architects, landscape architects, preservationists, planners, environmentalists, and others – are seeking to encourage the transformation to and support of places attuned to our mindfulness.
Fortunately, we have many beautiful, interesting, and amazing buildings and landscapes still available for our savoring and our constant reawakening. It takes only a few moments in a day to make a difference, and it can be very pleasing, refreshing, and inspiring. We can do it again and again – as long as we choose to look and take notice.
What buildings or landscapes does this bring to mind for you?