ruminations about architecture and design

Monday, August 26, 2013

settlement subordinate to landscape

So, what if there is nothing at all unique about American architecture? It's a comforting possibility, because then we don't have to worry about a cultural identity and embrace the purity of a thoroughly plastic design sensibility.  We can be completely derivative. We are not Egyptian, or Chinese, or Mayan. We have no Dresden cathedral, despite Sherman's acts of arson, and the cow in Chicago was merely setting the city up for a more robust architectural legacy, just like San Francisco had its great rebuilding. Who remembers the monuments of Radio Row? Who seriously considered a rebuild of the Towers?

Our legacy. I consider the vinyl siding on my house with a sense of grim indifference. I'm too cheap and lazy to do anything about it. I'll maintain and replace rotten woodwork with a half-hearted sense of craftsmanship as the years go by, pushing the utility of each structural element past the point of safety and with only a mild regard for aesthetics. I care what my client's houses look like, and I try to make decisions on their behalf that can stand the test of a twenty year timescale. No pharaoh would have hired me.

I"m getting off topic. What I wanted to point out is that buildings in America are subordinate to a social landscape. The physical characteristics of an urban settlement tend to be molded, at great expense, to suit the changing tastes and economic conditions of the inhabitants. In a recent post, I referred to the "flatland" and the relative fragility of our cities, spreading out along highway corridors in deserts, swamps, and old farmfields. Hillside and hilltop architecture is the anomaly for simple logistical reasons, and it points to our peaceful internal history, Sherman aside. Our social landscape is characterized by a sense of misplaced optimism. "Oh, we'll never really just abandon Detroit." We're not capable, in this country, of looking at our cities, and the buildings in them, from an archaeological perspective. Replacement carries more value than restoration, despite all the crowing of preservationists. Historic districts are in as much a state of flux as the nameless and countless strip malls that spring up overnight. The timescales are only slightly different.

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