The Best Man-Made Place on Earth


Oxford is just about the best man-made place on Earth. It's really, really old, and yet there are concepts within its urban layout that provide the answers to questions we seem to believe are new in our time. Living in Portland, Oregon, where the population has been swelling for more than ten years now, it's not hard to notice the strain rapid development puts on a place. Much of Oxford was built during a time when it may have taken more than a hundred years to complete one building. All these places are preserved now, but still, new creative construction carries on. Portland is famously a land of what some people might term “hippy nut jobs.” For years, the city has well preserved its small-scaled urban core, in large part thanks to the thumping preservationist tag lines of some of those nut jobs. Now, as it stretches to accommodate unprecedented growth rates, this preservation is being tossed out the window in favor of speed. Poorly constructed, unoriginal glass and steel towers are cropping up everywhere and much of the Portland that people moved here for is already lost.

I am not a preservationist. I do not shed tears when bad, old, buildings that are too small are torn down to make way for new ones that will accommodate contemporary life much better. I do shed tears when a place begins to lose its identity. It's like watching a good friend change so drastically you no longer remember why you cared for the person. Oxford has never lost its identity in its nearly 1000 years of existence. It is a global hub for the highest levels of academic study available to the human race. It is a place with a monastic foundation where discussing and deeply exploring the faith of those who founded it is still a serious and welcomed pursuit. It is a place where the harder sciences and the more philosophical ones are seen to foster one another, rather than to stand at odds and where the development of new ideas does not mean the total death of old ones. You can see that in built form in the photo I took in one of the college cloisters, where a hundreds-year-old wall and a building from the 1970's talk to one another with great respect. The wall and the beautifully landscaped space it contains create a place for the mind to wander free or work through problems more loosely before going inside and putting pen to paper. The newer building looks nothing like the old wall, but built as it is of materials specific to the city, it feels right at home.

There was a time when I imagined Portland had an identity as easily stated as Oxford's, but now I don't know. Actually, I think its branding as a specifically weird place embracing all number of special viewpoints and disputing norms only hails back to the late 1970's and early 1980's. The thumping preservationists that came to the fore then were irritating to some and perhaps seldom provided viable financial solutions to both preserve and grow the city at once, but they did give the city a very important gift. Those who think the gift is an embrace of all things weird miss the point; Portland is a port city, a logging city, and a city of one-off arts and crafts. It is a remarkably walk-able city (though less so now that it is teeming with homelessness) because of its unusually small, square city blocks. Most importantly, it is a city of small operations where dirty work and clean work often happen under one roof. Even if the specific industry of the city changes or grows, to date, it maintains a do-it-yourself problem solving approach that suggests a pioneer ending his covered wagon journey at the city's center today, apart from struggling to find a place to park, would know how to go about setting up shop in whatever trade he specialized. Could you imagine setting up a tannery in the heart of Oxford? Probably not, but here in Portland, sally forth.