A Church Without The Mumbo Jumbo

A lot of people talk about the last line of The Great Gatsby. Not a lot of people talk about the last page, though. On a page which does not lack exquisite lines, there is one which captivates me every time. Nick talks about how Dutch sailors must have felt when they looked at an untouched Long Island hundreds of years before:

...for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

It's one of those lines that makes me bite my lower lip and look up at the sky when I read it. 

Two structures have made me react this way. The first is Santiago Calatrava's white marble space station in Lower Manhattan, otherwise known as the Oculus. The other is the Sydney Opera House.

A tough shot: both the ship I'm on and the cruise ship are underway. I sprinted from starboard to port to get this one.

A tough shot: both the ship I'm on and the cruise ship are underway. I sprinted from starboard to port to get this one.

I am worried that, in trying to put the Opera House into words, I’ll just cheapen it. There are nearly a dozen books that tell the story of its construction, of the delays and the overruns and the architect who walked out the door in 1966--eight years before it opened and forty two years before his death--and never once returned to see it. For me, this last part is the Shakespeare of it all.

A lot of people claim--correctly--that Jorn Utzon designed a building that defined a country. But he did better than that. He designed a building that defined an entire hemisphere, if not the planet. It is tied with the Coke bottle for the most iconic silhouette in human history. That seems hyperbolic, even ignorant.

But then you see it.

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You come around the bow of a cruise ship in the harbor and it slams into your chest at 500 mph. Whatever you were talking about, whatever concern you held four seconds ago, has vanished.

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It’s a half mile away, on the far side of the harbor, and instinct sweeps away everything except your capacity for walking and breathing. I can’t emphasize this enough: you simply start moving towards it. You do not stroll. You lean into the stride.

The deck that rings the harbor is thick with people, but they see the chromed right angles in your eyes and scamper out of the way. You round the last turn as it sinks below the building beside you. You’re in the home stretch--and practically running.

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After an eternity of people and cafes, you spill into its massive presence. Perched on a magnificent pedestal that juts out into the water, its form is amplified through physical laws we scarcely understand. And yet, it’s clear that this ceramic dream-in-progress contains a higher truth. I won’t try to decipher it today--that would just debase it.

But I hope it wasn't the last time in history that I came face-to-face with something commensurate to my capacity for wonder.

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A church without the mumbo jumbo
— Phillip Johnson talking about something else but whatever it sounds great
These screws are massive. Probably two inches in diameter.

These screws are massive. Probably two inches in diameter.

The tiles are whiter. Some are gloss, others are matte. There are more than one million of them on it.

The tiles are whiter. Some are gloss, others are matte. There are more than one million of them on it.

The stonework isn't this red and the skies aren't turquoise but I like it.

The stonework isn't this red and the skies aren't turquoise but I like it.

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