view of San Francisco and the Bay from the Top of the Mark, looking north
When we lived in the city our lives were closely tuned to its pulses and flux. We grew and changed as a family at the pace and scale of the neighborhood, circles of friends, walks and talks, through layers still tangible and open-ended. To get perspective on urban life, we’d forfeit town for the beach, the mountains, the redwoods, a river. Like most of our friends, we’d seek ‘peak’ experiences in Nature and return re-energized, happy in our rekindled appreciation of home.
Now that our daily lives are settled in the countryside that once was our muse, and we’re tuned to the ground and the sky, patterns of blooms, cycles of growth and migration, we travel to town to find otherness and perspective, in a funny kind of reversal. Where our urban lives were once almost exclusively domestic, they are now public and temporal. We’re not quite tourists because it’s all so familiar, but we’re not quite flaneurs either because we’re not necessarily seeking anything exotic in that familiarity. We’re more like itinerant adventurers, looking for new Peak Experiences to contrast and contextualize the rural quietude. I guess we’re still town folk at heart.
The other day, Ene and I treated our daughter to afternoon tea at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco’s Nob Hill for her sixteenth birthday. We had spent the morning walking around Union Square, sitting in neighborhood parks and cafes and generally watching the world go by at street level. Sipping tea and munching finger sandwiches in a 1920’s hotel nineteen floors above the fray while listening to piped-in period appropriate jazz made for an unforgettable shift in scale in the course of our day, which got me thinking about how the role of public places shifts in the collective imagination.
It’s easy enough to simplify the transition in the scale of public places in contemporary life as increasing in height and distance over time- from the ground to the sky, but technology has more recently inverted that trend, or made it obsolete. The Gilded Age gave rise to the Jazz Age, that spawned the Space Age, that spawned the Information Age, and people abandoned public places for the most part in preference for their own living rooms, or so the story goes. But mobile devices are making the living room obsolete and appear to be helping fuel a renaissance in public life and architecture, although people are confused about what to do with it. What’s a more apt description of the post-information era we’re entering, the Noise Age?