The Maligned and Forgotten
|A Sanzhi UFO House, in New Taipei City, Taiwan (demolished in 2010)|
Poorly received and impugned things are seen as worthy of scorn because gravitating to new things is de rigueur. We're conditioned to respond favorably to the word 'new' on products. The act of possessing anything new or unspoiled, after all, is usually thought on as an exciting experience. Think on all the underrated or impugned things around us. We just assume they're forgotten for good reason. Often, they are. But sometime, we miss the chance to reflect on our culture and on ourselves. We see past societies as lesser than ours, past technological advances as inferior to ours, time periods previous to this one as not being advanced.
By clinging to perception that only new is good, we lose perspective about 'what's good' and 'what isn't.' We condition ourselves to see things - items and places and ideas - which have not stood the test of time as having lost a survival of the fittest competition.
Unearthing things lost to time or to critical derision, and discovering something new about them can be very rewarding. It can even give us insight into our lives in unexpected ways. There's no way for me to catalog the countless things in our world that are thrown below and left to fester in graceless anonymity, but I can list three that, while wildly divergent in nature, each represent a different part of my life.
Consider that which dwells below your line of sight.
1. E.T. and the Atari Video Game Landfill
|Worst Game Ever? Hardly.|
Truth is, E.T. was - and is - a convenient patsy for the larger failures of the industry at that time. The landfill is a devastating symbol for the end of one era of American dominance. The game itself is really not as bad as it's reputation would have you believe. I played it recently to re-assess its status as 'worst video game of all time.' Of the hundreds of games released for the Atari 2600 system between the years 1979 and 1983, it is not the worst.
Unlike many of the 'twitch and shoot' games released for the 2600, E.T. is unique because it tells a story - albeit a very simple one. It presents the player with a clear goal. You are E.T. You run around seeking pieces of a phone that can take you home. You eat Reese's pieces to gain health. You run from a scientist and an FBI agent. If you expend too much energy, you die. To counter this, you call Elliot and he heals you. You fall down pits then levitate out of them. You run - a lot - through the woods. That's it.
Worst game of all time? Hyperbole. It's about time we unearth E.T. from that landfill and give him the credit he deserves.
2. Googie Architecture / True Vegas Kitsch
Consider the famous Googie (or Mid-Century modern) architecture style. It was once considered modern, and now it's kitsch, and not only that, it's all but gone. You may think you haven't seen it, but you have. Consider the futurist space-age 'swoops' and diagonal angles of many coffee shops and motels in Los Angeles from the 1940s all the way up to the early 1980s. That's Googie. Remember Disney's 'Tomorrowland' during the 1950s and 1960s? That's Googie too. The Seattle Space Needle? Yep, Googie. Traces of it exist all along the west coast. I love this style, but it's dying fast, and it's a shame, because it's awesome.
Consider Las Vegas, with it's Googie signs and architecture. It gives up a little more of this famous outlandish kitsch for sake of more contemporary glamour each year. While movies and pop culture still milk the hell out of Vegas's legendary bawdy, tawdry, avocado-corduroy aesthetic, it's not very representative of what Vegas is now. The money flows to the best, boldest, sleekest, most modern innovations and comforts in the Desert Oasis, but the casinos and hotels in the Old Zone are being torn down and replaced, one by one. There may as well be a wall erected between Old Vegas and New Vegas. Soon, there will be little left, save the hotel that earns landmark status. With Nevada's economic woes, that even seems unlikely.
Vegas doesn't capitalize on kitsch or nostalgia for the Vegas of days past. It capitalizes on doing things more outrageously than the year before. For that reason, it must look ahead for its very survival. It's simply a shame that in doing so, Vegas may, in future, bear little resemblance to its kitschy, crazy, kooky past self.
One local reminder of kitsch in my neck of the woods is the Flames Restaurant, and the lingering ghosts of the famous Peppermill Restaurants. There are only a few Flames left around here, and only one that retains the architecture that makes Flames what it is. As for the Peppermill, the last one near me closed its doors about six or seven years ago. Plastic plants? Check. Giant green marzipan cakes? Yes. Servers old enough to be my great grandparents? Yes please. Pass the liver and onions, and don't forget to tip. I'll miss you, kitsch.
3. Urban Ghosts
My third and final example leads us thousands of miles east of the nearest Eichler home, to a very, very different sort of domicile. Riverside Hospital was built in the late nineteenth century, taking advantage of its remote location to isolate infections of the body and mind. It finally shuttered its doors in 1963, but remains there, hidden in a dense blanket of trees, in the top center of an island called North Brother, in the bay between Queens and the Bronx. Despite years of disuse, trespassing, vandalism, burning and having its glass eyes poked out one by one, it still stands.
There is no word in the English language for the dread you feel in the midst of this sort of decay and disrepute. There is no word for the feeling you get when you step over the narrow shore and into the trees, and see it at last, the long shadow of the place shielding you from the sun. The wheels of efficient, industrial bureaucracy slowed here, and at last stopped. Cracked wallpaper, abandoned wheelchairs and bathtubs and gurneys. Desk drawers open like mouths agape, their contents swept onto the floor to rot.
Places like this terrify us because we fear the loss of control of our own lives. Asylums carry the promise of the ultimate loss of oneself, and - as numerous horror tales demonstrate - that fear is far worse than merely the fear of death. With that fear, though, comes a larger fear evoked by abandoned buildings in general: the fear of the collapse of civilization, and the collapse of humanity. Places like Riverside all represent how we treat each other, and if that representation sinks into the earth as a disintegrating monument, it makes us wonder if humane treatment for the less fortunate among us shares the same fate. This is the primal fear at the heart of entering abandoned spaces, a fear we must overcome if we are to advance.
Our first instinct at the sight of decay is to run, or to sweep it away. Perhaps this is best, if we are to be a society that only faces forward. In seeking to improve oneself, though, we must look back now and again lest we repeat ourselves. Riverside is but one stone in a large pond of forgotten institutions and buildings that can all teach us this lesson. We can only hope that as time marches on, such places - be they hospitals, or factories, or orphanages, or churches - grow more humane and less isolating. We hope that the wheels of efficiency - the ones that slowed to a crawl on North Brother Island - speed up again, but only just fast enough to let us in to monitor our progress as a species.
So, there you have it. From software, to style, to civilization itself - we are often held captive by our judgments of things - by way of our unfamiliarity and separation from them. Human civilization, in its quest for self improvement and expansion, through its refusal to properly eulogize and re-assess, often halts the very advancement it seeks to achieve.