Skin of the City

By Scott Dewey

Some mornings I pull over to the curb on Broadway, slip a quarter into a parking meter, and walk over to see how the project is coming. It’s taking shape like a jagged clump of crystals in a third-grader’s science fair experiment.

The new Denver Art Museum expansion, schedule to open in 2006, will be one of our city’s most striking landmarks. For a while last winter as the steel beams were assembled in place, the structure looked like a big handful of pickup-sticks tossed in a jumbled pile. Workers with welding torches dangled from cables and stuck the whole mess together. With the passing months, successive layers of building materials have been fitted to the exterior. The finished surface will be polished titanium.

The museum’s design seems impossible. As an angular sculpture in a downtown plaza it might work, but can they actually get art galleries inside there? Will all the walls be crooked, and if so, how are they going to hang up the paintings? Will we be able to walk up into the odd inside cubby-holes and crannies of the place?

I’ve heard people either love the new museum design or hate it, which I suspect is a cliché—there must be plenty of people sort of in the middle. For the people who care, there are debates about whether the concept has any relationship to Denver’s substance and story. Unlike Denver International Airport’s architectural allusion to mountains and Native American dwellings, this building seems to have landed here with a thud like a meteorite from elsewhere. Titanium sheathing is hardly a locally-inspired material, and what are those chunky shapes about?

The project’s designer is Daniel Libeskind, who also was commissioned for the new World Trade Center in New York. Libeskind has been called everything from “the greatest architect of his generation” to a dangerous fraud. One reviewer, in a particularly low shot, refers to him as the Britney Spears of architects. That’s gotta sting, but I’ll admit I probably don’t know enough about Britney Spears to make my own judgment. As for my judgment on the new museum, I’ve been fascinated from the first time I saw an artist’s rendering of the plans. I can’t wait to get in.

Though I like what I see so far at 12th and Broadway, my taste is not of much consequence. I want to point out something vastly more significant: God loves the new art museum.

This is an experimental statement, like experimental architecture. People who care may call it dangerous or beautiful, and question its relationship to the known landscape of faith. But I want to try an artist’s rendering of this concept—that God has a certain love of the physical architecture of our city.
Even more specifically, that he loves its surfaces, its skin.

If I were to say that God loves the human souls of the city, it might not get much rise out of people of Christian faith. We take that much as given. But how can we grasp the depth of God’s love for souls if we do not appreciate his love for the skin that enfolds our human substance and story? Yes, God loves people in some general sense. But souls do not float in spiritual ether, disembodied. We live in our skin, and in our dwellings. Our surfaces matter; our matter matters.

The skin of my home is peach-colored paint, peeling to reveal aquamarine blue and a few other hues, and patches of crumbling red sandy brick. The brick is so soft you can bore holes in it with your fingernail—and kids do. It was used for cheap construction in 1895, when a row of five little houses in the Victorian “Queen Anne” style was thrown up for families of railroad workers in the lower Platte valley. The houses are spaced an arm’s length apart, a convenient jumping distance for squirrels on the roofs.

There are three larger homes on our block. On the corner stands a classic “Denver Square,” which as the name implies features a solid structure of four square brick walls, with elegant windows and roofline. Two reclusive ladies emerge once each spring to dig up the yard in its entirety, apparently to enhance weed growth. One Victorian home has ornately-carved trim and turned wooden columns anchoring the front porch. A plaque by the door reads “Fam Cervantes,” and with members of this large extended family I exchange waves and a phrase or two across our Spanish-English barrier. The other big Victorian has been abandoned for over a decade, with curtains billowing out of broken windows. It serves as a playhouse for kids, a canvas for graffiti, and a hookup spot for entrepreneurs operating outside the official economy.

On our street are many colors and textures, stretched over a great variety of shapes. I am speaking of the houses, though the same could be said for the people. There is bright mustard yellow and Jello-salad green. Anglo beige, Mexican brown, and African-American browner still. There is stucco and pressed aluminum faux wood. Eighty-year-old sagging faces, eighteen-year- old pimples, and eight-month-old sunny cheeks. Over the years, and as people come and go, the surfaces change. People of one culture paint their home in dark muted shades; the next family moves in and sprays the brick with pastels. One man fusses at his lawn every day, manicuring each grass blade to equal height with the others. We shape our surfaces, and they shape us—ask any of the people of color on our block about their experiences with the police, or the teens with pimples about the opposite sex, or the elderly with wrinkles about applying for a job.

We’re tightly packed here, at least by modern American standards. On one short block we have a small apartment building, duplexes, and a squat one- story six-plex row-house. Even the tiniest residences have multiple generations and extra boarders. Our brick homes with poorly-insulated attics get hot, and when we need a breath we tend to spill out our front doors rather than the back. We don’t have garages or driveways, so those of us with cars jostle for spots on the curb. We walk on each other’s grass, or dirt. Over low chain-link fences we befriend each other or mistrust each other. We hear each other make love, laughter, or curses.

I have great fondness for this urban neighborhood. Every day I enjoy its physical architecture, though I have been known to argue heatedly with people who value this place only for its real estate. The human souls of our neighborhood matter; they are of a piece with its skin.

This I know, for the Bible tells me so: Jesus loves me, he created the surfaces of the physical world, and he became physical skin. All these things have something to do with each other. Before the Bible told me, my mother and father told me, and before that they showed me. My earliest memories are of their physical embrace. As I grew older, my parents would show their tenderness toward me by carefully wrapping my skin in Saran Wrap and tucking me into bed.

That’s right, Saran Wrap. Like a turkey leg in the fridge, every night. As a boy I had eczema—cracks at each knuckle of my fingers, sores on my neck, inside my elbows, in back of my knees, on my private parts, all oozing and bleeding. When asked about it by classmates, I would shake my head and tell an invented tale about a bike wreck. Later, when my family moved to a rural area, two words worked as explanation: “barbed wire.” I hated my skin. I took to wearing long sleeve shirts buttoned all the way up to the top, claiming I liked the style.

On the doctor’s advice, each night my mom or dad would help me apply ointment. I still remember the crumpled tube with the brand name “Sinilar,” and the warning to apply sparingly. I overheard the doctor mention something about side effects involving thinning of the skin, and imagined my skin finally dissolving altogether. With raw flesh completely exposed to my curious peers, I would have to come up with an even better explanation. For my parents, however, there were no conditions on relationship. I would offer up each finger, each hand, each limb one by one for another strip of cellophane. After so many nights, one parent or the other would work their way over the surface of my skin with reassuring confidence. Spots of Scotch tape fixed the whole project together, and into my pajamas I would go. Had my parents loved only my soul, I am sure it still would have been the central significant fact of my life. But I cannot remember their love without wondering at how they cared for my skin.

My friend’s sister has skin thinned by years of poison. She spends her days going over every millimeter of her body, searching for a bit of flesh firm enough to hold the tip of a needle. Having exhausted all possibilities on the external surfaces of herself, she presses the search into her body cavities by whatever ingenuity she can muster. From childhood, this woman’s skin has been the object of such relentless lust and loathing that it has seeped through her tissues into her soul. You know it from the moment you meet her.

So the skin of our city may be caressed or savaged. It may be dressed—or undressed—with dignity, or it may be pimped for a buck. Sometimes it is not even clear exactly which is going on. Frederic C. Hamilton donated twenty million dollars as seed money for the new Denver Art Museum expansion project. I do not know if his motives were of simple generosity or self-serving hubris—he will be rewarded with his name on the building. Architect Libeskind could in fact be a fraud. The flagrantly corrupt Mayor Speer’s “City Beautiful” initiative of the early 1900s gave us our tree-lined boulevards, and Ku Klux Klan member Ben Stapleton gave us our first airport. “Could not the money have been given to the poor?” someone asked of an obscenely extravagant gesture made by a prostitute, but Jesus received it.

In his classic work, The Meaning of the City, sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul (1970) surveys scriptural and secular history to paint a dim picture of human motivation for building cities. That is precisely why his concluding argument is so stunning: that God demonstrates his love for humanity fully and finally in his embrace of the city. The final chapter of our faith story is not a garden paradise, but an urban center. We are looking for the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10) and where humans will “long enjoy the works of their hands” (Isa. 65:22). In other words, human achievement will be finally reconciled with God’s plans. Here we have echoes of the ancient Christian notion of recapitulation or “summing up” taken from Colossians 1:20, and emphasized by Irenaeus to counter the gnostic heresy in the second century. In the new city it is not just heavenly things, but also earthly things—human skin, human craftsmanship, peach-colored paint, titanium—that will be summed up. For those who have eyes to see, the summing up is not only coming, but has already begun.

On a Saturday morning, next to a window overlooking my street, I hold my youngest son on my lap. We’re wrapped in a blanket. He touches his finger to the back of my hand, and strokes it slowly from my knuckles to my wrist and back again. “I love your crinkled-up skin and your veins, Dad,” is all he has to say. I’ve received much better compliments, but never better love.

God is moving over the surface of the deep, loving the world to life. So loving the world! Loving its surfaces, its souls. So loving the world that he gives himself to be torn and pierced by its death. Moving over skin and spirit, urgent as lover over beloved. Breathing breath into mud, building an eternal city “decorated with every kind of precious stone.”

I have only a few words like a tossed handful of pickup-sticks, and imagination to weld them together, to say anything of how God loves my city. But who has anything else? It is worth the try. My friend’s sister with her needle needs to know. Frederic C. Hamilton with his millions needs to know. I need to know. All of us making life together in the city of Denver need to know for the salvation of our souls—sharing as we do our common skin, broken and lovely.