Sept. 21, 2023
In his landmark 1960 book, The Image of the City (1960), Kevin Lynch reframed our popular understanding of how people make sense of the urban landscape. Rather than thinking of cities as merely physical places that can be methodically measured and objectively mapped, cities must instead be viewed as mental and cultural artifacts. They exist, first and foremost, in the minds of the residents who inhabit them. Places become meaningful only as we come to know them personally and integrate them into our shared histories and communal experiences.
To help readers understand this process of "mental mapping," Lynch devised a typology of the basic elements we combine as we construct these internal images of the city, including the simplest building block of placemaking, the landmark.
Part location, part physical form or structure, part mythic symbol, the importance of landmarks cannot be overstated. Indeed, the entire field of placemaking has sprung up to help planners shape and convey a sense of place to residents and visitors, which is exactly what a landmark is marking. Whether natural or architectural, these instantly recognizable places serve as important beacons to gather meaning and anchor our shared understanding of a place.
Iconic America: Our Symbols and Stories is a new PBS docuseries for planners, designers, community developers, and other placemakers. Produced by David Rubenstein, the docuseries delivers an ongoing exploration of the creation and lasting importance of several classic American landmarks.
The short documentaries are concerned with what these places mean to us as well as what they look like or how they came to be. As Rubenstein explains, "I've long been struck by the strength of American symbols while saddened by how little we know about them. Our goal with this series is to explore the history and meaning of these iconic symbols and to better understand the bigger issues and societal currents they reveal."
The first two episodes connect directly with the ways urban landmarks shape places of lasting meaning and memory for our cities.
At the top of the batting order, the first episode recounts over a century in the history of Boston's iconic Fenway Park. Opened in 1912, the oldest ballpark in America is synonymous with both baseball and Boston. Fenway is literally embedded in the very fabric of the historic city, located smack-dab in the middle of a dense downtown network of streets and historic buildings — including one pre-existing thoroughfare which forced left field to be clipped short. This "clipping" resulted in the famous 37-foot-2-inch-high left-field wall known as "the Green Monster."
The delightful narrative combines conversations and interviews with the official Fenway Park curator, sportswriters, and Paul Goldberger, architectural historian and author of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. The series also brings to life popular myths, insider stories, personal reminiscences, and forgotten lore. It's a treasure-trove of archival images and found footage, delivering a charming blend of urban and architectural analysis, history, and the requisite touch of Red Sox Nation fan-love.
(Yankees fans may want to jump right to episode five, featuring the iconic history of New York's Statue of Liberty. Rubenstein weaves together discussions of immigration with the history of urbanization and industrialization as well as the growth of commerce, globalization and ways that landmarks serve to frame public debates as well as mark places.)
A fascinating episode on The Hollywood Sign tells the story of this early attempt at placemaking, erected in 1923 as a real estate advertisement. Propped up on a hillside, the Hollywood Sign serves as an enduring example of the power of imagination and history in creating a sense of place. Despite being low-tech, barely straight, and decidedly old-fashioned, this iconic landmark is instantly recognizable, evoking everything that is Hollywood: the stars, the glamour, and the bright lights of a big city aware of its past while looking towards its future.