By Mark McConaghy
What is a monumental space?
Any built environment that bespeaks grandeur, openness, solemnity. These are spaces that make you feel your own individual insignificance in the grand historical scheme of things, and yet that oddly provide a sense of comfort in that anonymity, making you happy to get lost in their epic sweep.
They are spaces that you remember long after you have left them, the image burned in your imagination, unforgettable and raw. They are that space you travel to in your mind’s eye at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, when you need a moment of imaginative solace, when you need to shatter the grizzled disappointment of workaday life that all of us must, inevitably, endure.
And yet these are not spaces that are barred off from you. They must be open to any of us who seek to use them, not totems you gaze upon as a castigated outsider. You must be able to enter into them, linger and absorb their breaks and flows, turning into a replenished, spiritually more whole person because of it.
And these must be humanly built spaces. I’m not referring to mountains, lakes, rivers, or coastlines here. For some reason, natural landscapes have always seemed oddly removed to me, in possession of a power that I cannot quite connect with. I see no human genius in them. Only the work of Nature and the long-duree of ecological time. They are almost too monumental to have any kind of human intimacy with. The modern urban bourgeoise lost whatever spiritual intimacy we had with the ecological Other long ago.
I should add that one of the reasons I love spaces of human genius is that I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and I can tell you from deep experience that there are no monumental spaces in Calgary. You can imagine, from a spatial perspective, how dreary my childhood was: just one unending collection of freeways, suburbs, mini-van interiors, generic post-war school houses, and big box stores. While the human bonds of my childhood were rich with love, the actual physical space of my upbringing was sheer suburban bore.
There is not a single moment of my childhood where I can remember ever being moved by the city I was in, ever feeling the sublime in the everyday world around me. Where was Calgary’s St.Peter’s Square? Why did it not endeavor to build an urban oasis as epic and stately as Da’an Park in downtown Taipei? When did city planners decide that all they should give the residents of Calgary were freeways, box stores, parking lots, generic glass towers, and cheap side-paneled homes?
Looking back on it, I can only wonder: why did Calgary’s urban leaders not foster some sense of pride in our city by giving us a space that people from all over the world would need to come and see, like the epic grandeur of People’s Square in Shanghai or Manhattan’s 50 blocks of open repose in Central Park?
And it is not just Calgary that was forced to endure this architectural impoverishment. So much of postwar urban development in Canada was cursed with such spectacular failure. You can count on your fingers the number of truly monumental and breathtaking spaces that you can find within Canadian cities. It’s certainly too much to ask for something as architecturally stunning as The Forbidden City, but Canadian leaders certainly could have built themselves a park as dazzling as Jingshan Gongyuan, which lies just behind the Forbidden City and exists as a space of heartbreaking refuge from the city around it. Ornate castles and royal gardens are certainly out of the question for urban development in the new world. But why was thoughtfully human space all together rejected during the post-war period?
Where some writers, like the great Chinese observer of bourgeois manners Zhang Ailing, had the dizzying scents, the cramped alleyways, the grand boulevards of a global city like Shanghai for inspiration, where Baudelaire had the languid arcades of Paris to meander within and construct his epic poetry of loss and love…what do our young Canadian writers have?
Freeways. Suburbs. Big Box Houses.
I can guarantee you this: if Canadian urban design had been creatively stronger, if we had longed to match and surpass the monumental grandeur of the great cultures of the past, our young artists, writers, and thinkers would have had more nourishment, more inspiration, for their creative souls.
As it stands now, a writer growing up in Brampton has exactly what to look out at everyday? Where do they immerse themselves to the point of frenzied joy? Cul-de-sac communities that are everywhere alike? Schools built with such institutional frugality that their drabness becomes a kind of stylistic calling card?
I know the typical Canadian answer to these questions: go to the mountains or the lakes that are just a stones throw away from most of our cities. It is in that monumental natural world that we find our national sustenance.
Yet we don’t live everyday in Nature- it is a place to go to sometimes, on weekends or during the summers. It is not apart of the quotidian materiality of urban lives. For the vast majority of the people in this country, that reality is the suburb, the freeway, the concrete institution or the encased glass office. Cultural nourishment must happen slowly, on an everyday basis, as a learned practice of dwelling, and it is literally obliterated by the generic blandness that the vast majority of people in Canada confront everyday in their urbanized reality.
Second, and more importantly, in this day of digital immediacy and virtual identity, I would wager that Nature in the classic Romantic sense- of the sublime and the terrifying, the transcendent and the vast- has long ceased to have power over our imagination. I can google map any national park I want and access a thousand images of it in less than a second. Even when we do go out to the mountains and the rivers, they fail to evoke the trembling power of spiritual flight in us, as they may have done for earlier generations of moderns who lived in Canada. For us, the smooth flow of digital space is much more real than any barren outcropping of prehistoric rock.
Now, one can disagree about my contention over the failure of Nature to thrill us in the digital age- certainly, I would need a much more historically rigorous analysis of the concept and experience of Nature in order to make the point. But nobody can argue my point about the general blandness of our urban landscape. Bland does not mean chaotic or dysfunctional. Bland just means ontologically uninspiring and, as a result, spiritually deadening.
As something of an antidote to the general dreariness to which we are accustomed to in our urban lives, let me provide a short list of some of my favorite monumental spaces throughout the world. These are spaces that have the world-historical about them, spaces we feel lucky to have been alive to experience.
Of course, a small list of 4 could hardly exhaust the monumental grandeur of the architectural world beyond our shores. I invite readers to share their own thoughts about the spaces they love in this world. And, as a retort to my general gloominess over the quality of architectural space in Canada, we can also ask the question: what monumental spaces do exist in the Canadian urban landscape? Perhaps in my vigorous cosmopolitanism, I have short-changed our home and native land to some degree?
Da’an Park (Great Peace Park): Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei. A rushing metropolis with an intricate urban design: large leafy boulevards criss-crossed by coiling blocks of intimate laneways, growing narrower and more silent the deeper you move through them. A perfect balance of the grand and the intimate, the raucous and the hushed, each laneway a whole world unto itself, but one sensuously placed amidst the thronging bustle of city life.
And sitting in the middle of this delicate urban mix is Da’an Park, a large section of rectangular green whose dense bamboo and camphor trees embrace the solitary walker with elegant coolness. To come upon Da’an Park is a wonderful experience in itself: you walk through the city’s criss-crossing laneways only for that nestled intimacy to open up into the breadth of the enfolding arms of the park. The transition between the rush of city life and the calm of the forested refuge, the sudden ease of this change in space and mood, lingers on in the mind long after you have left the park itself.
Lush with a stealthy remove that at the same time retains, underneath its surface, the beating heart of an urban metropolis, Da’an is a sight to behold.
St.Peter’s Square: Rome, Italy
As Da’an Park makes clear to us, it is the moment of transition- from quotidian and mundane to wide open and grand- that can account for so much of the power a space has on us. And there is no greater a transitional moment than when one first comes upon St.Peter’s in Rome. I would urge anybody who has the opportunity to fly into Rome at night, under the cover of darkness. Check in to a hotel in the historic center of the city. Go immediately to sleep. Wake up early the next day, say 5 or 6 in the morning, and start walking. Notice the incredibly clarity of the air, the ineffable quality of the morning light. Let yourself be taken in by the circular flow of the narrow streets, the bruised-luster of ancient stone, brightness.
And then you’ll come upon it: the bridge over the Tiber river, the grand boulevard leading up to the large enfolding square, the looming marble church with its magnificent dome.
From a medieval world of cloistered intimacy you have moved, in a few steps, to a space of intense theological ambition. The curving arcade columns, the looming statues of the saints, the slightly sunken cobblestone- it is a site that beckons the lowly walker, even (and especially) if he or she is as secular a nomad as most modern individuals are. For there is no need to look upon the looming statues around you as Christian saviors- they are just finely chiseled figures, looming heroes of a mythical age, aesthetic ornaments for the repose of the eye. Our healthy skepticism of all matters non-material hardly obliterates the grandeur and craftsmanship of St.Peter’s. Secularization does not destroy the beauty of the temple, just our belief in its holiness.
Princeton University Campus- Princeton, New Jersey
If one were to imagine a symbol for what the Enlightened academy would look like, you would be hard pressed to imagine a place more apt than Princeton University’s campus. While there are many beautiful campuses across the world, full of green common spaces, stately old buildings, and cloistered courtyards, so many of them possess one common flaw: they lack interconnection.
Great space must be smooth. It must flow in an interconnected way, ushering the walker with a sensuous momentum of its own. So much of the urban space we live in is hopelessly disconnected. Think of all the traffic lights, the start-stop waits at street corners, the exacting rationality of the urban grid, the walls of traffic and gates and barriers that tell us where we cannot go. And because the vast majority of space is already privatized within the market economy, the city becomes a vast legal fabric of interdicted space, full of individual zones of ownership which you cannot ever cross into without breaking the law. The city is only ever partially open, partially ours. Much of it has already been allotted to the individual owner and his property rights.
So to find spaces that are not only open to all regardless of class identity, but flow without restriction, flow with the sensuous ease of a waterfall, is very special indeed. Most college campuses feature bits and pieces of beautiful space- a quadrangle here, a college cloister over there, a beautiful athletic common ground. Even the grand universities of the Old World, Oxford and Cambridge, are really just a large collection of disconnected colleges surrounded by walls. Yet Princeton, virtually alone amongst North American universities, connects all of its beautiful spaces with walking pathways that stretch without interruption across the school. It was a space designed first and foremost for the walking student.
To feel that smoothness in such finely crafted space is like walking through a Sonata, the physicalization of music’s own mesmerizing sense of flow and motion. Or, to find its cinematic equivalent, Princeton’s pathways are like being swept up in a Terrence Malick steady-cam shot, floating through a reality transformed with aesthetic grace.
Parliament Hill: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
After disparaging so much of the urban space to be found in Canada, you didn’t think you would see such a predictable selection on this list did you? Call me contradictory if you’d like, but I would argue that Parliament Hill is one of the few urban spaces of monumental grandeur that Canada really got right. It meets all of our standards for greatness: it is an open quadrangle, mighty in its gothic luminosity, calming amidst a (relative) urban storm, and democratic in its universal accessibility. Indeed, anybody can walk onto the hill and touch the rich stone of the grand old buildings. Unlike our American counterpart to the south, we have not gated off our parliamentary center, restricting access to even its exterior to only those with security clearance.
And when you gaze out across the Ottawa River, with the physicalization of our democratic process behind you (no matter how flawed that democracy may be at times), it is an apt space to think about just what the meaning of this country is and how we can make it a more humane one.
South Bank Complex, National Theater: London, England
For those who believe that my definition of monumental space only encompasses royal gardens or medieval church squares, I present to you the South Bank Complex, home to both Britain’s National Theater as well as its National Film Institute. Situated just off the River Thames in downtown London, the complex is a masterpiece of 1970s Brutalist architecture, and proof that that most controversial of architectural styles can, if wielded in an appropriate fashion, produce buildings that pare down built form to a kind of spare, elegant sharpness.
The complex is a series of interconnected concrete forms linked by smooth, clean balconies with an open square forming its center. From a distance, the complex looks like a series of wooden blocks stacked together with the ingenious simplicity of a child playing alone in his room. Up close, their sheer materiality becomes mesmerizing, like reading the pared down prose of a Cormac McCarthy novel, with sentences so tight and perfect that you feel any addition of a word, no matter how insignificant, would be an affront to the semiotic purity of what is in front of you.
Take all the mess and the noise of classical (or, for that matter, postmodern) buildings away; take all of their fancied columns and their curving domes and their ornate additive flourishes. Strip it all down to its bare minimum, its zero base, and you get something haunting and unforgettable.
You get pure architecture, pure space: the Southbank in London.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books.