City of Discovery

Dennis Kilper, Blacksburg, VA 

The CITY OF DISCOVERY is a city prepared for the child, but not overly protective, nor shielding against uncontrolled discovery, Children need sometimes press the edges of their existence—to make unanticipated findings that change and reform one’s life—to discover the unimaginable that makes a life extraordinary. I fear the idea of a Child Friendly City will be one planned for willful control of children, that to protect them from accident and abuse, will shield them from those unique, life affecting experiences each kid needs to become a unique, contributing human being.

I was a student of Aldo van Eyck, arguably the architect most associated, of the 20th Century, with studies of the child in the city. It was our third year project with him—to design something common to the city, in a manner open to the wisdom of the child--to design something safe but still outside a child’s usual experience. When it came to the idea of the child-in-the-city, Van Eyck was the master architect. Look him up.

But my story is immense and itself unique, There was a wooded glade near the edge of the city. There, I discovered the presence of a sustaining structure, hidden under the visible surface of things, that gives order to all things.

Then, on a dare, I jumped down a deep black hole in the earth. There, in a wondrous cave, I survived to discover the in-between, where lovely light washed away the darkness.

In my father’s linotype machine, so heavy a moving apparatus it was supported on it’s own super-structure, I discovered both the constructive potential, and destructive power of the machine.

Then, one day, a sweet Summer Saturday between 6th and 7th grades, I rode my bike from South to North, 14 miles through the City. From my dear German/Catholic Carondelet, through the Greek neighborhood still littered from its wonderful Friday night yard parties and line-dances in the streets, around the ball diamond on the “Hill” (the heart of the Italian neighborhood where I could always join in a game when there was none at Mulanphy’s Lot, near home) then through the friendly Mill Creek area where pretty black, scantily clad women and smiling men waved to me with familiar memories of my past passings.

From there I headed through Downtown to the Old Cathedral, then North following the visible Mississippi to the Ionic Water Tower in the middle of the Irish neighborhood—the only place in years of bike rides I got beat up. But by now, the kids whom punched me were old buddies looked forward to greeting me. Such is the City.

They had shown me a beautiful Cemetery on the edge of the bluff overlooking the River. In it was a handsome sandstone, domed tomb. Its entry porch was well shaded and always cool on sultry St. Louis, Saturday’s. On it’s steps I often studied and discovered the power of the Book. There they were, The Glade, the Cave, the Machine and the Book, all given me by the City I had courage to explore.

At the end of my studies on the steps, I walked to where I could stand and see to as far my eyes could see over the great river. The essence of continuity was more evident, there, next to the Wainwright corpses, on the steps of the tomb Louis Sullivan designed for them, than in any classroom or laboratory. So on six summer Saturdays I taught myself the calculus.


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