The view from above

I've spent a bit of time in and around San Francisco. I lived in Berkeley and worked in San Francisco for a summer. I'd visited a couple of times before that. When I moved over here, my Mom and sister moved to Santa Rosa, so I've been back to San Francisco more times than I've been back to Austin. But I never really understood the Bay Area until I went to Angel Island and climbed Mount Caroline Livermore. Suddenly, everything made sense. San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Marin, the Richmond Bridge, Berkeley, the Bay Bridge and back again. I'd been in all those places. I'd seen them all on a map, but suddenly they all just clicked into place.

I'm not the only one who's had this type of experience. This month's Radiolab on the subject of Cities had this extraordinary account by Sxip Shirey of a very similar—and breathtakingly narrated—encounter with New York City from atop a rooftop in Brooklyn Heights.

There's this intense fog, and the Twin Towers: the bottom of them are covered in the fog, but not the top, so it's like they're floating. There was a little cuticle sliver of moon in the sky, and the fog horns are going, and the boats are slowly moving. And there's this breeze. And I had this brass penny whistle that my father had given me and I was playing it. And suddenly something clicked. I was like “Oh! That must... Those are all the bridges. That's the Williamsberg Bridge. That's the Manhatten Bridge. There's the Brooklyn Bridge. That's New York. It's small now.”

This reminded me of Roland Barthes' essay on The Eiffel Tower.

Take some view of Paris taken from the Eiffel Tower; here you make out the hill sloping down from Chai!lot, there the Bois de Boulogne; but where is the Arc de Triomphe? You don't see it, and this absence compels you to inspect the panorama once again, to look for this point which is missing in your structure; your knowledge (the knowledge you may have of Parisian topography) struggles with your perception, and in a sense, that is what intelligence is: to reconstitute, to make memory and sensation cooperate so as to produce in your mind a simulacrum of Paris, of which the elements are in front of you, real, ancestral, but nonetheless disoriented by the total space in which they are given to you, for this space was unknown to you.

The above experiences all have two things in common that I think are important.

The first is that this is not the same as looking at a map. The city is laid out below, but the vantage point from which it is viewed is grounded in a specific place. It is at a fixed point, and this is fundamental to the experience. There is a relationship with the panorama that is missing entirely from the bird's-eye view of a map.

The second is that the viewer already has first-hand knowledge of the city. She has traveled the streets, crossed the bridges, visited the monuments and buildings. It is only because of this knowledge that these various places—previously thought of a separate—can form a whole when viewed from above.

This leads me to two conclusions.

The first is that it is important to zoom out, to look at the next larger context. Whatever you're working on—a web form, a web site, a pamphlet, a house—take a moment to climb to the highest vantage point and look at what you're working on in the context of its surroundings.

The second is that a map or a “ten-thousand foot view” (you have my permission to roll your eyes) is useful. It's a place to start, but it's something very different from having a knowledge of the territory and taking in a panoramic view. It's all too easy to confuse a map for this kind of holistic view from above.