The importance of beauty in public spaces

I was very lucky to recently have an amazing holiday weekend in New York City. Although it was only a few days, we had been to the city before, and knew we could pack a lot in with a trusty pair of shoes.

New York is a big, bustling city of over 8 million people. Compared to Canmore, Alberta with a population of 12,000 permanent residents (and 5,900 non-permanent), it represents quite a change for us.

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Here I am enjoying a delicious lamb gyro from a street cart in Soho, NYC.

But, my husband and I love big cities and often take holidays in these magnificent centers because it gets us out of our routine, and lets us have access to fabulous art, food and culture. This trip to New York was no different, as we ate our way through the many street carts and restaurants, and spent the majority of our time enjoying museums and beautiful public places.

I had some Canmore people look at me in a puzzled way when I mentioned we were going to New York for the weekend. “Why New York?” they asked. On one level, I understand the question: we live in a very natural and beautiful mountain environment, and New York is far from that with its horn-honking, crowded streets and overwhelmingly tall concrete buildings.

But, if you’ve ever been to New York, you get it. Despite its size, and the fact that it is a popular tourist destination, it is amazingly beautiful. Everywhere you turn, you see stunning public art. The lobbies of business towers display murals, mosaics and original art that you would normally expect in a museum. The outsides of the buildings and brownstones have gorgeous detailing and intricate brick, plaster and iron work, just because.

I was – as always – thrilled with the free art and beautiful architecture that surrounds you everywhere, just walking up the street. Not to mention the museums!

As an artist, I am a beauty addict. So, I was delighted to see a city that was intensely modern, yet had so many gorgeous old buildings preserved and celebrated. Here in Western Canada, we often don’t cherish our structural history, and instead tear down old buildings for the modern boxes of the current culture. Unfortunately, we tend to lose the beautiful in the pursuit of the modern push towards progress.

I was listening to an archived podcast with Robert Bateman, a Canadian naturalist and painter born in Toronto, who is one of Canada’s advocates for conservation and the natural world. It was on “Tapestry” a wonderful CBC radio show I love, with one of the most engaging radio interviewers on the waves today, Mary Hynes.

The show was titled “Art & Soul”, and originally aired on December 26, 2010. Mary and Robert got talking about the importance of beauty in our lives, not only in natural settings, but in our manufactured spaces. I am including this clip because it speaks to what New York has seemed to avoid. New York is a decidedly urban place, but it still showcases beauty in a remarkable way.

MH: What do you think would happen, if you, Robert Bateman, sat down and painted an industrial park, or a motorway, or a concrete slab of a building?

RB: I love Toronto … I grew up in Toronto, and Old Toronto is just wonderful … It’s full of color, character, and richness. Now, a shopping mall is different from the brickworks in the Don Valley. That’s a fantastic subject for painting or photography. I don’t feel downhearted when I see that, like I do in a shopping mall.

MH: The mall has come up a couple of times. It’s interesting what you say about a place like a character-filled back alley in the city or the beautiful old brick works displayed by the Don River and Don Valley. What is the distinction between that and the mall? Why is the mall so offensive?

RB: I call modern malls the instant pudding world. We have been busily destroying our natural heritage and human heritage with a vengeance since the 1950s. So, if you love to say goodbye, then you’re living in the best time in the history of the planet because it’s “say goodbye time” … and it’s intensified. But it’s not being replaced with nothing; it’s being replaced with instant pudding. It’s sweet, smooth, slick, extremely convenient … you have nothing to do with the ingredients … and I’m using this as a metaphor for suburbs, plazas and throughways. It’s all manufactured by somebody else, somewhere else, who doesn’t know you. And, I think it’s a deadly thing that’s spreading over the planet … It’s automated and heartless, and not human at all.

MH: What do you think that does to the human being, to the human spirit, to the soul? What happens to the soul in that environment?

RB: Well, I think it’s soul destroying.

So, hats off to New York City for preserving buildings, spaces and art that contributes to our sense of place and beauty. Please enjoy these images from our recent trip, and I hope that I can give you a tiny taste of what a city with memory and a respect for beauty can do for the human soul.

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Trinity Church (circa 1846) nestled among the modern buildings of the Financial District, New York City. A testimony that old and new can work together harmoniously.

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Trinity Church Cemetery in the heart of the Financial District of NYC. A lovely green space left in the middle of tall skyscrapers and busy roadways.

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The Trinity Church Cemetery. This grave stone is dated 1761.

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The bronze statue of George Washington on the steps of the Federal Hall National Memorial (built in 1842) marks the approximate spot of his inauguration as the first US president.

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A gorgeously appointed doorway in Brooklyn Heights gives a warm welcome.

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The famous wrought iron and brownstone frontage of houses in Brooklyn Heights. Two boys hang out on the front step and enjoy the sunshine.

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Ornate doorway, Brooklyn Heights.

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Someone loves a quiet space in this tiny, but restful, back garden in Brooklyn Heights.

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Brooklyn Heights garden adorned with cute statues.

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The lovely residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights proves that high density can still be beautiful.

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Jefferson Market Library, in the Greenwich district of NYC, was originally built as a court house in 1874-1877. Public outcry at word of its demolition had it re-purposed as a library.

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The garden at the Jefferson Market Library (Greenwich, NYC) was stunning with new flowers.

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A public sculpture in the heart of Wall Street, NYC.

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Public art: “Red Cube”, by Isamu Noguchi at 140 Broadway. A popular photo spot for tourists.

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The beautiful brick work of the Lower East Side at sunset: buzzing with people and activity.

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The Lower East Side tenements, once considered the poorest of neighborhoods, are now much sought-after by hipper occupants.

The Woolworth Building, built in 1913, is still one of NYC tallest skyscrapers at 57 stories.

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A Sunday stroll in tranquil Central Park, New York City (near 79th Street Traverse Road).

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The Grande Central Station “Mercury Statue” Clock and the Chrysler Building in the background.

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The main branch New York Public Library, with the lion statues “Patience” and “Fortitude”, so named for the qualities New Yorkers would need after the Great Depression.

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The beautiful facade of the Manhattan Municipal Building.

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The Manhattan Municipal Building built 1907-1914. The statue on top “Civic Fame” draws inspiration from Roman architecture.

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Me standing on my sacred ground: the front steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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One of the beautiful sculptural galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

3 responses to “The importance of beauty in public spaces

  1. Thanks for the wonderful New York photos! I haven’t been for ages but would love to visit again. I thoroughly enjoy your blog. So – I’ve nominated you for the Sunshine Bloggers Award. See details here:

    • You’re welcome! I am happy to share. It was such an inspiring city, as you would know from being there. And, thanks so much for the award nomination! I will definitely get to work on that (I certainly enjoy yours, too!)

  2. Pingback: New additions to my inspiration wire | Musings From The Studio·

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