Monday, 7 April 2014

Is Age Really Just a Number

A friend of a friend has a web page in which he is travelling the world, stopping here and there to take pictures of things that strike his fancy.  This past month, he's been on the US east coast - most recently in the New York-New England corridor.  During his trip (he hails from Southern California), he captured a couple of pictures of the gothic buildings on the Yale University campus (founded in 1701).

In the US, 1701 is ancient history.  Of course, when Yale was founded, its chief rival, Harvard, had been in existence for more than a half century.  

The pictures got me to thinking that what is "historic" is in large part of function of where you are.

I lived most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, in central California.  My first home in San Jose was an American Four Square built in 1901.  The neighbourhood I lived in - Naglee Park - was one of the first fully planned communities in the US, and had many "historic" homes.  My own house, which celebrated its 100th year during my time living there, was considered old in California, coming just after the Victorian era (the neighbourhood had a few "Victorian" buildings, but not many - there is more classic Victorian architecture in nearby Santa Cruz, Los Gatos, and of course, San Francisco itself), and just before the Arts and Crafts movement (the neighbourhood had comparatively many "California Craftsman" bungalows, which proliferated in the 1900-1925 period).

A few years ago, my company moved my family to Princeton, New Jersey. The town of Princeton pre-dates the US (hence the name) by more than 100 years, and there are several homes and buildings in the area build before 1800.  My "old" house in San Jose would of course be considered "vintage" in Princeton, but by no means remarkably so.

Last year, again as a company relocation, my family and I moved to Paris, France.  On Saturday, walking home from taking our dog to a nearby park, we happened across an art nouveau apartment, constructed in 1901.  It looked radically 'new' (hence the name art nouveau), compared to the generally Haussmannien style buildings that made up the lion's share of the block.  Haussmann style buildings are the classic "Parisien" style most Americans imaging when they think of Paris - five-floor, stone-faced buildings with gabled or mansard roofs.  The art nouveau apartment was a stark contrast.  In further fact, when the Paris Metro opened at the turn of the 20th century, most of its signage and stations used the style, and some of these survive even today.  

Of course, Baron Haussmann's work was an early example of urban renewal in the mid to late 19th century in Paris - at the behest of Napoleon III, the city of Paris was modernised by demolishing many of the gothic and Romanesque buildings and narrow streets of the city to create a more modern, open city. 

Haussmann died in 1891.

My own apartment building in Paris was constructed at the end of the ancienne regime at the turn of the end of the 18th century.  

Paris is an old city, but it itself has nothing on Prague in the Czech Republic, which we visited in March.  In Prague, there has not been a Baron Haussmann - even the Soviets did not do much in terms of uprooting and destroying the glorious, old buildings.  The astronomical clock, for example, was constructed starting in 1410.  Prague is almost a living museum piece, with hundreds of gothic and older buildings.  We had dinner one evening in a gothic clock tower that had been retro-fitted to purpose.

German (and also allied) bombs had little impact on the city, which for the most part escaped the unintended urban "renewal" inflicted on the great cities of Europe in the two world wars.

Paris has few remaining gothic buildings - the Notre Dame Cathedral stands out, and last year celebrated its 850th anniversary.  

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