Urbanity

There is a huge difference between the merely impressive and the expressive when it comes to modern cities. Rotterdam, once one of the glories in the European architectural crown, was bombed to dust in WWII and, given the poverty of post-war resources, was rebuilt in the following decades as a horrifyingly soulless, boxy blot of concrete on the face of the Netherlands. There is no comfort in knowing that the firestorm that destroyed the city was probably not planned as it happened but resulted from a perfect storm of another kind in miscommunications; the horrors of war are a long testimony to the potential for such devastation. In any even, it took Rotterdam ages to be revitalized into the place of energy and beauty that it is today. Why? What made it such a heart-stopping graveyard of a place when it had once been full of life and loveliness, and how could it ever come back to be something gracious and potent again?

There is no obvious single word that can express the massive destructive toll the bombing took on that city; annihilation is perhaps a close approximation, since it’s clear even from faded photos that the thoroughness of the attacks left very little evidence there had ever been a Rotterdam. I find it nearly impossible to imagine even when staring at proof. When my spouse and I visited the city for a conference even less than fifteen years ago it was still a sad shadow of its former glory, still dominated by 1950s-vintage blocks of affordable and utilitarian harshness that made me want to scream when I saw them in juxtaposition to the few tiny remnants of the beautiful architecture that had once filled the place.

The main reason that Rotterdam is beautiful once again, and that many other cities have, and some have never lost, such beauty is simple: architectural thought and distinction. Building what is cheapest and easiest to construct is a poor solution to lack of structure anywhere. Places that have never experienced the ravages of war, urban decay and other forms of damage and neglect in such extremes can retain the beauty and patina of urbane culture in their urban settings far more easily. Take Boston, Massachusetts, a city that has seen its share of ups and downs over time, but as one of the older cities in a young and generally untouched-by-war country, still has many of its older–even oldest–and most prized, elegant, distinctive buildings. Despite the expected problems of social unrest, economic up- and downturns, spots of urban blight and misdirected city planning that Boston has faced like any modern city, the knowledge that the architectural strengths it does have are worthy of protecting and preserving means that it was built as more than mere indoor space in the first place and that the character of the structures has as much value in shaping the city’s identity as do its great denizens.photoIt should be obvious to those of us wishing to see all of the world housed and sheltered in humane and useful structures and towns and cities that simply throwing up whatever is cheapest and most readily available is hardly more useful, in the long term, than just plain, well, throwing up on people. If we want others to live educated, healthy and therefore productive and admirable lives, we can’t stuff them into trash bins of buildings that, even if they don’t collapse under their own flawed ugliness, will never encourage their occupants and users to flourish. If we don’t intend to fill others’ lives with the vomitous garbage we ourselves would reject and flee, we must find ways to make good, practical, appealing design a mandate and not an afterthought or an unaffordable dream.

That approach not only makes living and working in tolerable shelter possible but nurtures the human spirit and pushes us all to better ourselves, our cities and our world. photo

Just a Little Thing

It doesn’t always require a huge investment of time, materials or effort to effect a notable improvement around the house. No matter how gifted I am at procrastinating when it comes to DIY and fix-it projects around the place, I’m always kind of amazed to rediscover how small a thing can have such large-scale impact. It doesn’t mean that I learn from my experiences enough to behave sensibly and just get the tasks done without resistance, but I seldom fail to be impressed after the fact all the same.photoTake front door painting, for example. There wasn’t anything especially unpleasant, let alone wrong, with the existing paint on our front door. It was, in fact, in good condition, and even a pretty nice color. I do like this trim color on the house in general. What was a bit unsatisfactory to me was that with such a dark color on it, the front door seemed to me to actively recede from view into the shadows of the porch rather than appearing to welcome visitors approaching on the front path.

So I decided to paint the door a sprightly and fresh color that might liven up the entry and seem a little more encouraging to anyone who might be coming to knock there. I chose an apple green that I knew would mimic the brightest greens in the plantings around our yard and complement both the existing deep green trim paint and the earthy mix of colors in our brickwork. I chose a semi-gloss paint to reflect light without glaring and make the door even more visible from the street and path.photoThen I waited. I put it off for weeks. It was only a couple days’ work to mask, prep and triple-coat the door, but I could find any number of excuses to do Other Things, even put up the also-evaded porch Christmas lights, as long as I could avoid repainting the front door. That’s how I [don’t] roll. Lazy People Unite!photoWell, I did finally get the task done. And it’s kind of impressive to me, yet again, how much this one little thing manages to change the look of the house. For the better, I think; in the name of fair play I must, of course, tell you that the manly member of the household is not yet convinced the change is for the better, but he doesn’t object so strenuously that I’m going to repaint it anytime soon. Besides, even if I do decide to repaint it, there’s no doubt it’ll take a good long while for the project to actually get done.photo

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 1: Cheap Organizational Tricks

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A selection of inexpensive reusable plastic containers serves not only for food storage but for a multitude of small miscellany–kind of like my stomach and my brain, but probably in a far more effective sense.

Since I spent my anniversary hauling everything out of my kitchen cabinets, scrubbing everything down, and reorganizing about 90% of the kitchen’s contents, I shall give myself the pat on the back of showing off a bit. Mainly, in reality, because I was struck yet again on doing this necessary and not entirely unpleasant (thank you, Results) task at how much benefit is got from the process and how little it needs to cost besides effort and a tiny bit of ingenuity. The sort that comes from use and practice, in fact. And because when I rein in my high-end urges I often find it satisfying that my inner (and too often, very well hidden) miser can make a positive difference in my life.

Let me explain.

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In the lower cabinets facing the kitchen table, a ‘breakfast center’ of the simplest sort for guests who want morning tea, coffee, toast or cereal (the latter goes on the empty middle shelf when grocery shopping has occurred again!). At the bottom is a bucket of birdseed for our avian guest who might appear at any time on the patio just on the other side of the table, a box of lightbulbs and a seldom-used steamer dish.

The biggest thing about cleanup and re-org is that it satisfies my inherently neatnik soul. Though I crave tidiness generally, I can be as sloppy and untidy and dirty as the next person, especially when, as now, there are projects afoot–and underfoot. We are having some work done on a widely dispersed set of items that take the mess all around our house despite the majority of the individual projects’ being relatively small. A back door adjustment, where last month’s under-slab hot water leak led to re-plumbing the line to bypass the slab by going up and through the attic, which in turn led to the soil under the slab drying out, settling into the void left by the leak, and pinning the nearby exterior door frame shut. Removal of three horribly outdated and worn countertops and sinks and faucets in two bathrooms for replacement–and waiting, sink-less, for the new stuff to arrive. Getting the living room wall put back together after it was disassembled to run that new plumbing line down for reconnection after the leak about fifteen feet away was repaired. And pulling the old kitchen cooktop out to replace it with new.

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Another set of lower cabinets houses the large pots and the small appliances. It’s amazing how much putting a few of the latter into a clean, open-topped cardboard shipping box can do to keep the space from getting ridiculously cluttered by ‘floating’ parts and cords.

This latter, necessitated by the persistent crabbiness of the mistress of the kitchen about having a wildly un-level cooker, each burner skewing a different direction so that none could offer an even surface for a pan and finally, only two of the four actually, well, burning. So I was more than willing to forgo having any functional cooktop for the short term, thinking that it was not terribly different from having had a barely semi-functional one for the two years since we moved in here. Tomorrow we expect the stonemason and his crew to be in to install our new bathroom sink counters, and he will re-cut the cooktop opening to fit the slightly deeper configuration of the new appliance.

In the meantime, it was essential to pull out the drawers directly underneath the cooker for removal and replacement access. And there you have your ‘trigger’–the moment when it becomes clear that once a half-dozen dominoes of order have been tipped in the house, the rest will soon follow. As they did. The immediate effect of pulling out the drawers was a reminder that as neat as I can be at times, the world and our actions in it fill up the neatest of spaces with bits of detritus; things shift in moving drawers until they are nestled invisibly in odd corners and buried under other things, and stuff entirely forgotten as soon as it was put away and out of sight may be well past its shelf-life, if not the half-life of radium. In short: time to clean and reorganize thoroughly once again.

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Sometimes it’s the littlest things that please me most: having airtight plastic boxes to keep tea sachets together and fresh, and a cheap little plastic basket to keep the boxes proximal and easy to carry to the breakfast table, and a quick scribble on the boxes to remind me what the heck I’ve kept in stock–that makes breakfast time ever so much more relaxed.

Being a visually oriented magpie and loving things to look ‘right’ and living within moderate means can work at decidedly cross purposes from time to time. What I have begun to acknowledge as useful wisdom in my encroaching antiquity is that there are places I can compromise comfortably on having everything look (my definition of) perfect or designer-coordinated or fancy-schmancy or otherwise idealized. One simple rule for me is to remember that what is in a drawer, a cupboard or a closet does not get seen when the drawers and doors are properly closed between uses. If they are neat, clean and practical enough in their order for my purposes when open and in use, they needn’t be expensively or extravagantly stored, only tidily and securely. So although I may cock my glinting magpie eye with a tinge of lust at those magnificent custom closet installations and the exquisitely artful antique containers that fill some people’s pantries and the fantastic item-specific systems adorning someone’s million-dollar shed or garage, I look for a way to repurpose the extant and then ‘shop low’–look at the thrift stores and dollar-an-item bonanzas for bargains before I look elsewhere.

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Another tea-basket, this one with the sugars for visitors’ tea *and* coffee, lives by the first and by the one with the instant coffee–that, more for flavoring my cookery than for drinking, since most guests happily prefer using the French press or drip coffeemakers that I keep handy nearby.

Even this is hardly necessary for the quality of life. I know that plenty of people manage to keep their belongings in check by merely tending them carefully enough and placing them wisely enough that they are where they should be, in the required condition and easy to get and use at all times. I, on the other hand, find that grouping things with their fellows helps me immensely in having a sense of order and functionality and to survive the intermittent bombed-out adventures of a project taking over any part of house or life. So I love to find well-suited containers that fit the occasion and the objects and go forth from there with my space-arranging efforts.

To be Continued!