MyAmericanFuture

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

January 7, 2014: San Fran Sites: Palace of Fine Arts

[As I was reminded during my book talk visit, the Bay Area is home to numerous, significant American sites. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such evocative places. Add your thoughts, or your own sites, in the comments!]

On the deeply strange site that’s unnerving and inspiring in equal measure.
As part of a series on San Diego spaces last spring, I wrote a post about Balboa Park, and specifically the many striking buildings and monuments created within it for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Perhaps because they’re part of the separate space of the park (rather than overtly connected to the city beyond its borders), and perhaps because there are many of them in close proximity to one another, those buildings and monuments didn’t seem (at least to this visitor) particularly odd or out of place. But the same can’t be said for another monument constructed for the same exposition, San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts; the Palace’s huge buildings literally and figuratively stand out amidst the homes, businesses, and docks of the city’s Marina District, making the site a unique and beautiful but very odd non sequitor.
Ever since my one visit to Rome, back in the summer of 2002, I’ve noted that my favorite thing about the city, and Italy overall (the only European country I’ve visited to date), was the lack of separation between its historic buildings and sites and its contemporary neighborhoods and life, the way in which you could turn a random corner and see the Coliseum. Yet although I’ve concurrently lamented the way in which American cities seem instead to separate the past from the present, I have to admit that the Palace of Fine Arts, entirely unseparated as it is, felt more unnerving than impressive—and I think the reason (which I felt even before I learned about it) is its artificiality, its overtly purposeful construction as an impressive cultural performance. That is, a site like the Coliseum was simply a historical and cultural edifice that has been allowed to remain part of the evolving city around it; I’m sure that its architects intended it to make a statement, but it nonetheless was at one point part of the city and its daily life. The Palace was from its first moments of existence anything but, and, to my mind, it shows.
But having said all of that, it’s also important to say this: as with any urban space, and perhaps especially one so overtly un-intended for a practical purpose, the Palace has evolved and grown as part of the surrounding community. Some of that evolution is likely in line with the site’s initial goals: I was far from the only tourist wandering the Palace’s grounds on the day I visited. But some evolutions have taken the space in other directions: from the many different birds who have made the Palace’s lagoon their home, and made the site into a natural as well as man-made one as a result; to the local residents who were reading, jogging, picnicking on the grounds, making the Palace into an urban park along the lines of the many produced by the City Beautiful movement. While the Palace’s monuments and sculptures are inspiring in their own way, I found these perhaps unintended (and certainly more organic) evolutions much more inspiring still: as a reflection of how the history of a site, like the history of a city and of a nation, grows out of all those who encounter and engage with and inhabit it, into something new and far more beautiful than any isolated moment could ever be.
Next site tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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