At the turn of the century, after the industrial revolution led people to cities in droves to find work, German philosopher Georg Simmel observed a change in human behavior. Over-stimulated by multitudes of people, advertisements, buildings, cars, and noise, city folk tended toward emotional detachment from one another, despite and because of living and working in such close proximity.
Almost as soon as people arrived in the city, they tried to escape from it. Today, with more than half of the U.S. population living in major metropolitan areas, the search for calm and peaceful places has become ever more widespread. An earlier incarnation of the same desire led to the creation of Central Park in 1857, and contemporary public artists, architects, and city planners strive to create ever more peaceful and contemplative spaces, while city guides dedicate whole chapters, books, and series to “secret” places to escape the tourists and general urban hubbub.
The “Peaceful Places” series has devoted books to Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, and most recently, Washington, DC. Published by a company whose repertoire mostly consists of hiking, camping, and rafting guides, Peaceful Places: Washington, D.C. covers different categories of “peaceful places,” including parks, woodlands, restaurants, coffee shops, and almost every major independent bookstore and museum in the city. Each site is rated according to its degree of “peacefulness,” and each entry also includes useful information on how to get there. Although the book is apparently written for residents, about half the places mentioned are either obvious, not really that peaceful, or past Baltimore or in West Virginia. There are, however, a few places that I had never heard of that sound rather intriguing. For example, the American Psychological Association building apparently has a public labyrinth on its roof.
So what does this book have to do with sculpture? Well, the mere fact that Peaceful Places mentions almost every major art museum and sculpture garden in the greater Washington, DC, area—along with a few select memorials and locally owned galleries—leads the reader to believe that there is something inherently peaceful in art, whether outdoors or in a gallery or museum. In fact, museums and art galleries are only outnumbered by parks, trails, gardens, and the like, which goes back to the idea that public artists, architects, and gallery owners working in metropolitan areas continually seek to create peaceful and contemplative places. Since the success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the trend toward tranquility in public art has overtaken even aesthetics. There is no denying the power of the silence encountered at the intersection of the two walls of the memorial, especially considering its tourist-ridden location. Many sculpture gardens strive for this same feeling of peace and isolation. After all, the arts have always served as a means of escapism. In the metropolis, this often entails an escape from the travails of daily life.