The City, a State of Mind?

“The city is a state of mind,” writes Robert Park in 1915. If this is true, can we assume the city is no longer confined to geography, and thus able to exist in any location?

The city isn’t the only state of mind. According to rapper Clyde Carson, California is also state of mind.

Although I’m not really down with rap, I’m pretty sure what Carson means is that California people might become geographically separated from their state, but they still have that Cali state of mind. At least, that’s what we think in New York.

My recent trip to San Francisco proved that California is definitely a state of mind, and it’s definitely not mine. So, you can imagine my surprise when, walking through Lincoln Park, I stumbled upon my state of mind–Paris!

Is that you Paris?

After hours of jagged cliffs, aggressive waters, and rolling hills of pine trees, the dirt hiking trail gave way to a paved sidewalk and I suddenly found myself in front of Beaux Arts architecture. Moments ago, friends and I had looked at the Golden Gate bridge and declared to be (geographically) at the end of it all. But now, standing in front of an enormous structure of imposing symmetry, we somehow seemed to be at the very beginning–of the modern polis that is.

Walking through Lincoln Park

Then suddenly this

My first thought was that my mental longing for the urban had become so strong, I somehow managed to conjure up a city, or at least building that belonged in the city. But it wasn’t my imagination. Some California institutional ideology had produced something decidedly un-California, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Carved into the front of the building were the words Honneur et Patrie.

Honor and patronage to what, Napoleon?

The initial design for the  Legion of Honor came from the 18th century Parisian Palais de la Légion d’Honneur which was then reconfigured by two French architects for the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. The Legion we see today was built shortly after the Fair, in honor of California-born soldiers who died in World War I.

Although honor and patronage is for American solders, the state of mind at the time was to articulate this honor through a Euro-centric ideology. The California state of mind was to produce a European style building that would house one of North America’s largest collections of classical European art.

My own mental confusion was becoming so great that I did what I often do in a state of anxiety, I reasoned through literature.

We could go to the Musée du Louvre, I suppose,” and he smoothed his chin while awaiting the effect of this proposition. “There are antiquities there–statues, pictures, lots of things. It is very instructive. Have any of you been there?”

In this passage of Zola’s L’Assomoir, a drunk, working class wedding party is looking for a little excitement. Wishing to assimilate into a more bourgeoise state of mind, they decide to go the Louvre, (which became a public institution in the 19th century). Although initially excited, the wedding party quickly becomes bored with a high culture state of mind and leaves.

I’m neither drunk nor with a wedding party, and I have no desire to walk through an oppressively formal building on this gorgeous day. Does that mean my inherently city state of mind is slowly being replaced by Carson’s state of mind? Or am I just not cultured enough to appreciate a museum in this context?

Pierre Bourdieu’s work in the 1960s was an attempt to dethrone Kantian aesthetics surrounding the idea of taste. He argues that “official culture,” and the aura surrounding it, is a state of mind that is often inaccessible to lower classes because class structure works inherently by dividing the ‘cultured’ from the ‘uncultured.’ In his study surrounding museum attendance and economic/social class he concludes that “nothing would be more nave than to expect that simply reducing admission charges would lead to an increase in visiting among the working class,”(1969/91, 19).

Admission to the museum is $10, which is not that expensive when we consider entrance fees to place like MoMA or the San Francisco Asian Art Museum ($20 and $17 respectively). But I still have no desire to go in. For what ever reason I’m troubled by the architecture and the way in which architecture often operates under ideology as opposed to context.

The Legion was constructed during the era of City Beautiful, a movement that brought Beaux Art architecture to cities all over America with the hope of culling a state of mind of collective civic virtue.

I would argue that the museum and its contents were not constructed in honor of dead soldiers,. The Legion was built in honor of the rationality of man and the manipulation of the natural.

Although Lincoln Park is just as unnatural as this building, it is not obvious. On the other hand, the 19th century street lights are too much for me. The whole thing feels forced. Lincoln Park is keeping in context with the geography and landscape. But how on earth does Beaux Art formalism reflect a California state of mind?

Street lights outside the Legion

In the 21st century there is a good deal of concern about architecture that doesn’t assimilate with the landscape. But this is nothing new. Global city architecture is California imitating France imitating Rome. City Beautiful sought European architectural ideals, and architects of the International Style operated under the assumption that modern architecture would become a universal ideal–of course people in Algeria would love a concrete box! But perhaps that’s just it. Architecture will seek to reproduce an ideological state of mind, irrespective of geography.

But what does any of this have to do with that first image of Rodin’s Thinker?

One of my favorite reruns growing up was the 1960s, California-based show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillies. Dwayne Hickerman plays Dobie Gillies, a guy who spends his days lusting after the beautiful girls in school. Dobie and his best friend Maynard like jazz, blonds, avoiding work, and repeating the phrase, “don’t be a square.” Dobie and Maynard thus become the first televised example of West Coast beatnik culture. The show’s opening and closing credits always featured Dobie sitting in front of Rodin’s Thinker, the one here at the California Legion of Honor.

Dobie seems to dig the statue a lot, it allows him to reflect on stuff, you know, get into that  beatitude state of mind. If I was to point out to him that the bronze statue wasn’t actually caste by Rodin, but some other French guy, he’d probably interrupt me and tell me to stop being such a square. My cynical state of mind is just too un-California.

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