Saturday, 21 May 2011

Criteria Of A Wonder

What makes a Wonder?

At the simplest level, the word “wonder” itself captures the essence of what I'm after - a monument or structure that imbues a sense of awe. Never mind that we get the word from a mistranslation of the original Greek, which more accurately meant “must-see”, wonder should be the primary impact of these landmarks. They should be impressive, and upon viewing should make us take a step back and say something along the lines of “Bloody hell.”

So what makes us react like that? Sudden and unexpected nudity from a pretty lady, for one, or an obese man on a trampoline. But in terms of being impressed with man-made monumentality there are a few criteria that can give us the “wow” moment.

The first, and the only one essential to every place I intend going, is size. All of these places are big. A statue a metre high may be an exquisite work of art, but it's a statue of one hundred metres that becomes a monument. Structures on a grand scale are impressive, even if unsubtle or downright ugly they are still a visual spectacle. Although size alone is certainly not enough to make a Wonder (lest you get a giant Tesco staking its claim), it is certainly is a prerequisite. I should note though that I'm not saying they all need to be in the realm of giga-gargantuan, just pretty obviously large.

None of the other criteria are essential, but any serious Wonder would have to have a handful of them. In no particular order:

Technical excellence is usually required to build a massive, often pioneering, structure. Feats of engineering and powers of organisation were required to build both Stonehenge and the Burj Khalifa; whether old or new, the rational science of construction has to have high-to-genius levels of expertise applied. Wonders are often projects that, once finished, have the layman look on and think “How did they do that?”

Artistry, or beauty, or aesthetic integrity, or architectural splendour, or just honest-to-God prettiness – a Wonder would usually be expected to look good. This may range from the ornate carvings of Borobudur, or the clean simplicity of the Gateway Arch, but should overwhelmingly resound that artists as well as engineers have been involved in the project. I've worked on oil rigs for the last five years, and although they are certainly big and impressively engineered structures, they are functional – and functional only – structures without anything in the way of a heart or soul that would be associated with the intrinsic fascination of a Wonder.

Age or Durability affects the perception of any monument. One that has been around for thousands of years has a natural gravitas that intrigues, hence ruins don't become obsolete. The sense of timelessness is impressive. This gives old or ancient monuments a natural advantage – and rightly so – over brand new ones, but does not mean modern structures have to be lightweights in this category. Age, in this context, is just a proven durability: modern buildings clearly built to last may be unproven but can still have a sense of durability, a sense of permanence, and one that in some cases may have been already tested by the likes of earthquakes or war. It becomes something of a thought game for newer buildings – how would they survive natural disasters or the decline of civilisations? Mount Rushmore, carved from granite, is expected to last over a hundred million years, but some ultra-modern skyscrapers would likely not last a hundred years without regular maintenance.

Fame or Iconicity underlies the very concept of a Wonder. Iconic buildings have an enhanced reputation by simple virtue of their fame (although conversely with the greater chance of disappointment when visiting them). The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China: all are immediately recognisable and symbolise their city or country, and that fame enhances their allure. Of course, fame isn't everything – just as Paris Hilton's fame doesn't automatically make her a talented singer-songwriter, London's Millennium Dome/O2 Arena doesn't suddenly become magnificent just because everyone's heard of it. And fame can be fleeting too – the Empire State Building has remained in vogue while many later, taller buildings have not, and others remain to be seen. So while not an integral component to a Wonder, it is certainly enhancing.

Photogenecity is linked with fame/iconicity, as photogenic structures help propagate fame or awareness. Some buildings are not particularly impressive in person but can make for fantastic photos, whereas its the reverse for others, especially anything substantially underground. Also – I'm a terrible photographer, so photogenic buildings make things so much easier for me.

Context is a very undermentioned quality. The surroundings of a Wonder make a significant difference as to the appreciation of it. A temple deep within a jungle seems a lot more impressive than a temple surrounded by a bunch of blocky apartments and a motorway. Machu Picchu would be less astonishing were it at the foot of a mountain rather than at the spectacular peak of one. The Pyramids are substantially let down by their modern surroundings, on the edge of some Cairo slums and overlooked by a Pizza Hut; rather they were where it seems they should be, in the middle of the desert.

Originality helps a monument stand out. The Sydney Opera House was an original building design, thus helping it quickly become an internationally recognised icon of Sydney and Australia. Despite there now being many metal towers (and smaller copies), the Eiffel Tower was the original and the best. Even if not wholly original, at least being the best example of an original idea can be enough. The Great Pyramid wasn't quite the first Egyptian pyramid, but took the earlier ideas to new levels, the Colosseum in Rome likewise. To the other extreme, generic structures have got very little chance of being considered Wonders – unless adding something to original design, nothing will stand out in a copy.

Focus is a factor also, and by this I mean there should be a focal point, rather than a sprawling, endless series of buildings. On some lists I've seen the likes of the New York skyline or the entire city of Shanghai listed, but that seems far too nebulous for me. Ideally, there should be an actual single monument, or at least a single location. There are a few city ruins in my list, but as I've not yet been there I don't know if they are compact and with a central focus or just a series of broken piles of stone across a massive area. The latter is certainly interesting, but too spread out to be considered a single Wonder. Although if like New York they have more than one major landmark, then they may contain one or more Wonder within. I suppose what I'm saying is that a sprawling ruined city, or such entity, should more be the surrounding context for the Wonder, rather than the Wonder itself.

Je ne sais quoi. Some buildings, monuments, places or venues just have that extra something.

These are the basic components commonly shared by prospective Wonders. None are essential, save for size, but all are desirable.

Despite outlining the basic criteria, my approach is not going to be scientific. Although I do rather like statistics and ratings, I'm not going to mark each location out of ten, either as a whole or by the various individual criteria, as I don't think this would be terribly helpful. This isn't computer game reviewing or a “Which” guide to world monuments, it's more of a personal – although hopefully informed – opinion of various remarkable locations. These criteria will certainly be at the back of my mind when I'm visiting, but I won't be ticking boxes.

What I do intend is to simply give my views on everywhere as fairly as I can. Being fair means trying not to be biased – as I have no agenda this shouldn't be an issue – and also trying to remove the “personal experience” elements from my assessments. By this I mean that if I visit, say, the Taj Mahal on a day when I'm hungover, or sick, or grumpy, or when there I get a whole heap of hassle from touts, I'll certainly mention this in my account of it, but I'll try not to let it impair my judgement. Similarly, if I have a great time somewhere because of the weather or the company or because I had a smashing breakfast, I'll try not to let that influence matters.

Needless to say, ten other people could do this same trip and all come up with a different final seven Wonders, but that's very much in the spirit of the original Greek lists, which are a composite of lists from several historians or scholar or even travel-poets. I'm not sure which of these three categories I'd fall into, and there might be patches of history and scholarlisicism featuring in this blog, but I promise you that I'll try and avoid the poetry.

Unless you really, really want some.


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  2. This was really helpful for an assignment I had to do on the wonders of the world