In a previous post I talked about the idea that good architecture is made not at street level where the people are, but above the street. It happens where people actually look (or so it should). In that last post I focused on Disney’s Cinderella Castle to illustrate my point. It is a piece of architecture that easily conveyed the idea that good architecture is aspirational. Disney knows this, but I think most people see architecture as either a necessity or as an add-on art.
In this post, I am going to talk about two main ideas: the general effect of disposable architecture and the itch to travel that is born from it.
It’s true that architecture is a necessity because without it a building couldn’t be built. But beyond the needful aspects of building a building, most people will choose to view architecture as an add-on art, the compilation of bonus features to make a building “look nice”. When so considered, we begin to see the Louis Sullivan inspired form v. function debate settle on the mediocre understanding that architecture serves a single purpose: the (bad) reality of consumptive use. Consumptive use is when a building is built for the sole purpose to be consumed in the exercise of a specific use. When the use is done or obsolete, the building is demolished to make way for something else. This happens over a long period of time but regardless, this is hardly inspirational and it results in what I have termed “throw-away buildings“: buildings of no value beyond their current use. No one cries when the wrecking ball arrives.
Lackluster design, basic shapes, low quality materials, all of these make up that “throw-away” or disposable character. When the building has reached the end of its useful life, there is no reason to preserve it. It must go to make way for new things (hopefully better). In every town in America we are bombarded daily by the drab buildings that look tired and are plain and utilitarian. The big boxes, the junior boxes, the vanilla envelopes and all the jargon we’ve come to know because of the suburban phenomenon have depleted our ability to dream big and design meaningful buildings in meaningful spaces and places. Indeed, even those buildings with the “add-on” features are often low quality imitations of an imagination or some other (if nameless) place. They barely lift our heads (if at all) for us to find inspiration. They mostly keep us down. In short, the architecture does not elevate our aspirations. Rather, it discourages us daily in the worst ways. Good architecture should make people aspire to something higher, something more than what they know now.
— Architecture (@archpics) March 3, 2017
This is a good graphic that shows the low quality end result we are so accustomed to seeing. I call this sort of imitative architecture “value engineered”.
The Travel Itch is Born
If there is any good that comes from this sort of value engineered architecture– the bad reality– it is this: it makes us restless. I generally believe that people can stomach our built environments only so much before the itch to travel (or move away!) grows insatiable. The itch to travel is perhaps the only inspiration we get from the doldrums of the mediocre places we’ve grown accustomed to seeing everywhere we go. But it is something like starving and desiring to eat food. It’s not really an enviable situation. The desire to travel should not be motivated by survival (and yes, I think it’s a survival tactic that we try to “get away from it all”). But we often think of travel as an escape. I don’t blame people for thinking that way. In all seriousness, who would when the “good” architecture we are exposed to everyday is nothing more than a collection of repetitive generic stucco and dry-vit cubes imported from place to place. They’re not really from another place because they do not belong to any one place. The travel itch, then, is when we’re yearning to find authenticity; an authentic living place.
Take a look at this Google search to see what I mean.
If there is any good that comes from this sort of value engineered architecture, it is this: it makes us restless.
This is the stuff that lines our streets. Our places are “plazas” (the favored euphemism of the strip mall) surrounded by parking lots. And the thing about it is that anywhere you go you can pretty much see the same type of architecture. Up at the top of that search, click on the Scottsdale tab. It will take you to Arizona. You’re probably thinking that that architecture looks familiar (even if you have never been to Scottsdale). We’ve all seen that sort of architecture in our neck of the woods, wherever we might live. This is the imitative architecture that passes as the stuff of “placemaking” in many places. It’s the stuff that is heavily geared to the street level view of our daily lives. Our attention is focused at what lies ahead of us, eye level, where the marketing happens. It is not gazing upon authenticity but artificiality. There is an artificial captivity placed on our attention. On top, there is nothing except for a dry-vit parapet and a sign band to put signs so our eyes immediately look down to see the meaning of the sign. The marketers want us to look in the store, after all. Once in a while we get the add-on feature that, admittedly, does make the building look better than it would without it, but it does not mean it is made into good architecture. And so our spaces and places serve utilitarian purposes that cannot elevate our aspirations. They only seek to grab attention in sales pitches.
What is worse is the residential architecture. Let’s not forget that many residential land uses are also architecturally pale in many places. The vast majority of Americans, I would venture to say, live in the typical “snout house”. Snout houses are those that have the attached garage at the front of the house with a big garage door facing the street and a driveway. The garage and its door are the snout and this is another way of presenting a blank wall to the street, making our neighborhoods appear deserted and uninviting– in many cases even to our own neighbors. That blank look to the street is like the blank walls I talked about in my last post, except here it is more sinister because neighbors offer each other few chances to interact. They just drive their cars right into their homes. They were alone in traffic and they are alone in the “neighborhood”.
Looking at residential architecture, when traveling, is important. It allows you to see how the locals live in the places we like to visit, and it gives us a chance to compare to our own places. To be sure, it’s not always the best architecture either, but the beauty of the surrounding areas, whether they are beautifully designed active piazzas or sun-soaked mountains and crystal clear sea-fronts, are often enough for many of us to question why we live in the places that we do. We say things like “Why do we live in Chicago?” If we mean it, we begin the process of aspiring to move. I think it’s important for dwellings to elevate our aspirations too.
(RECOMMENDED READ: A good blog to read on the failures of modern residential architecture is McMansion Hell. I won’t be a spoiler, but it is a pretty funny and informative blog about the many problems of residential architecture, which in many ways, often imitates the commercial architecture and vice versa. Compare it to A Field Guide to American Houses, which talks about historic and contemporary building patterns).
I am certain we could go on forever criticizing the architecture of this building and that building but I’m not going to write an in depth architectural critique of the current and most popular stock of buildings in America. That’t not the point of this blog. Instead, I want to talk about the good stuff in the places we like to see and visit. So having written some of this introductory content to show where I am heading with this, soon I’ll start presenting places generally and then we’ll build up to focused locations.
Thanks for reading!