A journal of TMI

Carpentry and Design

My origins as a builder

I grew up in a colonial town (Annapolis) that at one point served as the Revolutionary capital of the United States immediately after ratifying the Treaty of Paris, which declared the American colonies to be free of the British Crown and to be a confederacy of sovereign States. This promise of Liberty is mired in the fact that Maryland, in this inception, was created as a tobacco farm which owed its wealth to slave trade and slave labor.

“The Archaeology of Liberty in an American Capital” by Mark P. Leone discusses how the baroque design of Annapolis served to capture the acquiescence of its people through seemingly hypnotic optical illusions  that emphasized the power of church and state. The sides of key streets in the city center, for instance, that radiate as from a hub as if from the sun, are not parallel, as streets are often assumed to be. Exaggerated perspective lines make the two main circles in town seem much larger than they really are. Observation decks crown these twin focal points of civil and religious power. These perches of surveillance are in fact designed to instill vigilance in the civilian of watching him or herself, they are termed “panopticons”. This center of inspection was designed so that the watcher could not be seen. In the case of the Maryland state house, perhaps as is typical, the watcher could not be seen and was probably never there, but the watch tower is the most prominent feature in the entire city, so it is what is being watched. This paradoxical display epitomizes power in a democratic slave city. A sort of ‘Wizard of Oz’ perches on top of a larger dome wherein ‘citizens’ (free white males) are invited to congregate and inspect the mechanism of power, the citizen’s vote. Those enslaved, the Africans, hidden from this empty eye, created African realms within their allotted domain, the cellars of the city. Spirit bundles and cosmograms attest to universe creation, maintenance and manipulation carried out by ritual specialists.

The strategy of baroque city design is to place symbols of authority in prominent places so as to seem unavoidable and inevitable. The risk is that by creating illusions, once they are pierced, the emptiness at the core is revealed. Its quaintness seemingly has the ability to persist in its power, however.

A small footnote from that font of information, Wikipedia: “For the 1783 Congress, the Governor of Maryland commissioned, John Shaw, a local [Annapolis] cabinet maker, to create an American flag. The flag is slightly different from other designs of the time. The blue field extends over the entire height of the hoist”. My point here is that symbols and ideas, such as the flag, or the panopticon only enter daily life when they materialize as actual objects. Design penetrates our sphere of life most effectively when the builder puts his or her hand to it. Designs get built, for better or worse, or, of course, they founder or are discarded.

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