Things were looking up in New Haven not long ago, or at least I was doing so. I spent several hours wandering the downtown streets with the decided intention of gazing at the tops of buildings just for the pleasure of it. In a kind of windowless window shopping I wasn’t out to buy anything and walked away with nothing but photos. I had no purpose but a kind of vagabond looking.
Gawking skyward was quickly and lavishly rewarded with a rich display of shapes and textures, possibly exceeding what we commonly see at eye-level. There were elaborate geometrics and crenellations, art deco rhythms and receding concentric surfaces. I spied human forms, animals like squirrels and owls as well as bizarre creatures that never existed but in imagination. There were flowers carved in stone and medallions with fruit brocade and roping. Just a few degrees north of doorways were whole unexplored, fanciful worlds of artistry. Even some modern skyscrapers included unusual upper story windows, stone ornamentation, or structural steel elements used to good effect at the roofline.
Some of these marvels just required a quick crane of the neck to the second or third level façade, but others were ten or more stories above the pavement and barely visible to the naked eye. Binoculars or a long camera lens come in handy. As I strolled streets not far from the historic green I found this architectural eye-candy on churches and government buildings like city hall and the federal courthouse, on the Yale campus, on banks, insurance and utility company offices, even on houses.
Some of the finest urban building ornamentation and most interesting design elements are found near the tops of buildings. Perhaps it’s because, unlike ground level stories, the details are hard to remodel out of existence. And for some reason (perhaps sheer mischievousness) architects like to put a flourish where few people are likely to look. Of course, the cumulative impact adds to the overall satisfaction of viewing a streetscape, but the individual details often go unnoticed. Third story terracotta medallions, elaborately dentiled and bracketed cornices, and gargoyles leaping from a high ledge are visible for all to see yet rarely observed—just a riot of minutia hidden in plain sight.
Not only is it easier to see at eye-level, we are encouraged to do so. As a boy on my first ventures into a city my father warned me to keep my eyes fixed straight ahead. Looking up or down or to the side too frequently would mark me as a tourist, an easy mark for con men, thieves, wise guys and worse. When we go into stores, libraries, or any place where we make choices among objects, “eye-level shelving” techniques of merchandising ensures that those items a proprietor wants us to notice meet our gaze immediately. Merchants well know that product placement makes a difference in sales, and items placed high up or low down often don’t get noticed.
So why do architects place such wonderfully fine details on the rarely noticed upper reaches of buildings? I’m not entirely sure, but glad they do. So next time you’re in a city or village downtown, spend some time looking up. A whole new universe will be revealed. Enjoy yourself with your eyes tilted toward the light and your nose in the breeze. Just watch out crossing the street.