This review of the exhibit “Mapping Boston” appeared in the April 2000 issue of artsMedia, a Boston-based magazine of the arts, which has since ceased publication. The construction of the BPL Courtyard has been completed for a while now, and it looks stunning, especially on a spring day when the place becomes a kind of quiet refuge from the bustle of the city outside. And imagining the return of spring to our city makes the cold and snow a little bit more tolerable. See you next year, and have a blast saying farewell to 2010 and welcoming 2011! What a year this has been!
If you are an organized and purposeful pedestrian or traveler, the worst thing that can happen to you is this: You arrive at your destination only to find out that your target is not there, or worse is still there but in some unfamiliar configuration. Your palms turn sweaty, your heartbeat erratic, your eyes inert.
Which is what will happen these days if you head down to the Boston Public Library to contemplate the beauty of the Courtyard at that magical moment between winter and spring when our city is a tapestry of whispers and shudders. Instead, you will find a gigantic mess of rubble, deep holes, and scaffolding, as though a meteor had landed between McKim and Johnson buildings and turned the place upside down. The young man at the information desk will tell you that the Courtyard is being renovated, the hint of a smirk at the edge of his lips. You should have known. An older employee, a sensitive, gentlemanly soul, will offer to lead you through the passageway which connects the two buildings to show you the architect’s sketch of what the Courtyard will look like once the project is completed sometime during the summer.
It is a nice rendition, with a fountain in the middle, flowers and shrubs all around. But how long can you stand there, in the company of a sketch? More: How many times will this happen, you wonder. It seems that every structure in town — mansion and shack alike — is in the grip of some kind of renovation or restoration. It’s almost a trend, you think to yourself. A little bit like the forgiveness movement which has overtaken not only the White House and the Vatican but the lives of people you know — your colleagues, your friends, your relatives. So much so that sometimes you are tempted to proclaim loud and clear that you are for unadulterated, simple revenge. The sketch is very nice, you think to yourself as the light streams through the window and falls gently on the colorful blueprint. But you want to scream, Leave the buildings and structures alone, let them rest, but spare me the frenzy to renovate and restore, the compulsion to save and clean. The good intentions.
But slow down, my friend. Not so fast to react, not so fast. You should have known that life is one long, intricate string of your grasp falling short of your reach. So turn away from the Courtyard — in anticipation rather than anger, wonderment rather than frustration. To the Bates Hall reading room, perhaps, on the second flour of the Library where you can rest your tired feet and calm your frustrated heart. Wipe your brow, dry your hands, read your book. The place is quiet and luminous with that inward, renovating kind of attention which all the reading rooms of the world’s great libraries inspire and cultivate. If you listen, you may even hear the echoes of all the others you have seen or read about, the muted sounds of a fraternity which transcends border and language — the true domain of the traveler.
If you are still restless, head out of Bates and to your left you will find a remarkable exhibition, Mapping Boston which runs until June. The exhibition is nestled in one corner of the magisterial atmosphere of the Library — the Siena and Knoxville marbles, the mosaics and murals, the arches and alcoves, the plaster ceilings and engraved wooden shelves, in short the entire edifice of quotations and references and imitative gestures and original strokes. It is an extraordinary display of maps of Boston, which span across three centuries and tell a story of Boston Harbor which is as fascinating as it is cautionary: a city given shape and purpose through an extended series of land-making enterprises such as filling, “wharfing out,” razing and annexing, all of which have transformed this thin-necked, puny peninsula (depicted with great beauty in J.N. Bellin’s 1764 map Plan de la Ville et du Port de Boston) into the chubby, and well-fed city we know today. But the maps also tell us something about the art of cartography itself — the relationship between script and line, and line and its referent. Often, the cartographic construct appears more beautiful than the actual city it tries to picture, as in the 1776 map by G.F.I. Frentzel of Leipzig or the G.W. Boynton map of 1838 and others.
The exhibit will fill you with wonderment and awe, but it will also remind you, as did the guard at the entrance, that you should have known. Cities are the repositories of memories; they are layered with ingenuity and violence in equal parts. In the end, the violence is often forgiven, or at least, forgotten, in the name of progress or prosperity, or simply sheer size. But an exhibition such as Mapping Boston, which chronicles the creation and shaping of the land itself, tells you also that, despite the certitudes of topography and its subjects, we often walk on sand, along fault-lines.
In James Cowan’s meditative novel, The Mapmaker’s Dream,Fra Mauro, the Renaissance cartographer of the Court of Venice writes: “What we long for most eludes us. What we journey to the ends of the earth to find turns out to have departed a month, a day, even a minute ago.” So too with your excursion to the Courtyard. Not quite, not quite what you expected, but it will do, and do well. What you were looking for was, in fact, close to you, under your confident footsteps.~~Taline Voskeritchian