An uncanny object at an elevation

An example: the Reading (PA) Pagoda (a feature of my life from age 5 through age 18). Which will take us to uncanny objects of many sorts and also to one specific cultural function of elevations, affording a scenic viewpoint.

The Reading Pagoda, with people using the site to view a section of the city and some surrounding areas:


Pagoda time. From Wikipedia on this Pagoda:

The Pagoda is a novelty building, built atop the south end of Mount Penn overlooking Reading, Pennsylvania, United States. It has been a symbol of the city for more than a century.

… Perched on the edge of a cliff, 620 feet (190 m) above the city and 886 feet (270 m) above sea level, it offers a 30-mile (48 km) panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside

… Within the top story hangs a tocsin, a massive bell cast in Obata, Mie Prefecture, Japan, in 1739, and formerly installed in a Buddhist temple in … Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo.

[There is a Japanese garden, and Japanese cherry trees are planted around the building.]

… It houses a small café and a gift shop, and functions as an icon for the City of Reading.

And on pagodas in general (from Wikipedia):

A pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves common to China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Most pagodas were built to have a religious function, most often Buddhist but sometimes Taoist

… Chinese pagodas are a traditional part of Chinese architecture. In addition to religious use, since ancient times Chinese pagodas have been praised for the spectacular views they offer, and many famous poems in Chinese history attest to the joy of scaling pagodas. … The pagoda’s interior has a series of staircases that allow the visitor to ascend to the top of the building and to witness the view from an opening on one side at each story. Most have between three and 13 stories (almost always an odd number) and the classic gradual tiered eaves.

The oddity of having a Japanese pagoda at the top of Mount Penn is muted for locals by its having become just a part of the landscape. But it is in fact a strange object, with no natural association with its location.

Uncanny objects.From NOAD:

adj. uncanny: strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way: an uncanny feeling that she was being watched.

Uncanny objects, small and large, are something of a specialty for Zippy the Pinhead, with his fascination for roadside figures, fiberglass figures, muffler men, advertising icons (doughnuts, sharks, what have you, outside of the advertised establishment or suspended from the ceiling indoors), and things describable as giant X or big X, many of them the size of buildings.

Big things are something of a cultural preoccupation in some parts of the world. From my 4/21/12 posting “Big roadside attractions”, on:

off-beat roadside attractions, including two in Illinois: the Kaskaskia Dragon (which breathes real fire) and The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle

… other structures that are billed as The World’s Largest X, The Giant X, or The Big X. These are common in the US and in Australia (where they constitute a kind of national preoccupation; there’s even a Wikipedia page on The Big Things of Australia).

… A sampling of the [Australian] big things, in no particular order:

Merino, ram, lamb, lobster, banana, penguin, guitar, mushroom, apple, ant, avocado, axe, beer can, cheese, orange, poo, prawn, spider, trout, barracuda, crab, dugong, golf ball, mango, peanut, pumpkin, kangaroo, shoe, oyster, rocking horse, platypus, slide rule, Tasmanian devil, abalone, cigar, Ned Kelly, strawberry, worm, crocodile, tennis racquet, sundial

Scenic viewpoints. Some background from my 9/17/17 posting “Tower viewers”, about binoculars / a telescope on a stalk, in tourist locations and lookout points:

There’s no widely used term for this device. The Wikipedia article lists a huge number of terms, starting with general terms (binoculars, telescope, viewer) that have to be understood as having more specific reference in context.

… none of these compounds are entirely semantically transparent. Nor, for that matter, are the compounds scenic lookout and scenic overlook, which are my usual terms for a high place for viewing scenery (perhaps through a tower viewer). From Wikipedia:

A scenic viewpoint, also called an observation point, viewpoint or viewing point, or, in North America, a [(scenic)] lookout, scenic overlook or vista point, is a high place where people can view scenery (often with binoculars) and photograph it. Scenic overlooks are typically created alongside mountain roads, often as a simple turnouts where motorists can pull over onto pavement, gravel, or grass on the right-of-way. Many are larger, having parking areas, while some (typically on larger highways) are off the road completely.

These are natural elevations. But it’s also possible to create an elevation for a scenic viewpoint, via a structure of some kind: the Statue of Liberty, providing a stunning view of New York Harbor;

(#2) From NBC News on 8/9/06: “The Statue of Liberty’s crown, shown here in 1986 before it was closed to the public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, will remain off-limits, National Park Service officials say” (photo: Susan Ragan / AP file) — but it was reopened in October 2012

the Eiffel Tower; the Washington Monument; skyscrapers with observation decks; the Gigantic Toad of Yasothon, Thailand, which creates an elevated deck for viewing the local riverfront (see my 2/22/21 posting “The Gigantic Toad”):


Or you can add a structure of some kind to an existing elevation, as with the Reading Pagoda.

All of these structures often have symbolic value of their own, which might be relevant to their context (the Statue of Liberty; the Gigantic Toad alluding to a legendary toad prince) or might be entirely imported from another context (the Reading Pagoda, with all of its Japanese and religious associations, in a city that had virtually no Japanese residents at the time of the Pagoda’s construction). Of course, structures full of symbolic value can be placed in prominent locations without providing occasion for heightened scenic viewpoints: as in the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:


These structures then often pick up a new symbolic value, as iconic of their locale (the Pagoda as symbolic of Reading, Christ the Redeemer as symbolic of Rio and indeed of Brazil). Of course, structures can serve as symbols of their locale without affording heightened scenic viewpoints: as in the Hollywood sign, on Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills; see my 12/8/17 posting “The Hollywood sign in a time of troubles”:


The cultural functions of elevations. This posting has been about the function of affording scenic overviews. There are two parts to that: providing an overview of the surrounding area, providing a view of attractive scenery — and these pleasures are in principle separable. In any case, both embody cultural values that deserve further analysis (which I don’t feel entirely competent to provide).

But there are a number of other cultural functions of elevations, which at least should be catalogued. I’ll put these discussions off to another posting.

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