Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Vocabulary of Nowhere

His name is James Howard Kunstler. And as of this week his work has changed my whole outlook. I will even say it has changed my whole life.

Color this post "heavy revvy" and "life-transforming," at least at my end of it. And I'm serious here.

[clears throat]

I have suffered with this frustration and sense of alienation for over ten years now --possibly twenty years (I don't even recall how long it's been gnawing at me). And yet I have endlessly lacked the vocabulary to express it all until this week when I at long last discovered this man and his web site and his books. And so I now finally, finally, finally, finally know with an unwavering (possible even angry) confidence that:

  1. I am not alone in these thoughts.
  2. I am not backward or unsophisticated for having this outlook.
  3. I am not a snob or a fascist for harboring such strong feelings.
I rarely experience life-changing revelations (and I doubt many really exist in this world, at least for me). This is one of the few times that a single book/website/news article has so deeply impacted me. And not only is this epiphany worthy of its own blog entry, it's also worthy of its own Blogspot label.

Here's what the fuss is about ...

... For years now I have lived, worked, walked and driven through many municipalities in the US and even abroad. And even though I lack any training in architecture or design, I've always noticed that I quite overtly fancied some buildings markedly more than others, and even felt more at home while walking through some neigborhoods than others. I struggled for years to put my finger on why it was that I was so fond of the downtown area of West Chester, Pennsylvania, and yet simultaneously so repulsed by the allegedly historical shopping district known as "The X" in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was mystified over being so thoroughly enchanted by the entirety of Huntington Village on Long Island, and yet so turned off by the well-intended-but-something's-not-quite-right downtown area of Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.

All of this simmered in my soul with such an enigmatic perplexity that I was convinced it was far more than just a matter of chocolate versus vanilla. These issues were exactly that: issues --not mere preferences or matters of taste, but issues. Issuesd with modern architecture. Issues with modern shoppig plazas. Issues with the lack of public transportation. Issues with the slow pernicious destruction of our sidewalk system. And all of this was downright troubling to me because I felt deeply torn between several aspects of my own sense of self that were all in conflict here.

One of those turmoiled parts of me was my cultural identity that wanted to respect tradition and history (such as might be found in "old-fashion" architecture). But another conflicted part of me was my intellectual allegiance to the ideals of progressiveness which states that the imperative to push onward into the enlightening future mandates we must judiciously separate ourselves from all needless emcumberances of the backward past. And another fly of confoundment in this complicated oinment was the endearment I held for my own personal philosophy on art which had for years been assailed by the creeping fear that maybe the REAL problem is that I am simply NOT artistically sophisticated enough to appreciate these more modern architectural offerings.

There was a fourth thread weaving itself into this web of confusion: specifically the unrelated (or so I thought!) issue of my being car-less. So while I was pondering architectural aesthetics, I was likewise grumbling about being an inconvenienced pedestrian unable to either shop with ease or achieve a rational commute to work outside of motoring. And therefore I simultaneously grappled with the fear that maybe I was guilty of misdirected anger: perhaps my resentment of modern architecture was a subconscious offshoot of an improper self-focus upon my "needs" as an individual, complaining about how difficult it was to live in the Philadelphia suburbs without a car. And so perhaps I was unjustly condemning the society that made it so hard for me to get around. Maybe the REAL truth was simply that I was a sub-par member of society as evidenced by the fact that I obviously couldn't afford a car (like "normal" people), so something must be wrong with ME and not with the arrangement of the landscape. I had guilt-tripped myself into believing that this utopian fantasy I longed for of living in a small, walkable village --with shops and a train and a library and a post office and a dry cleaner and a pharmacy and a supermarket-- was not something a rational person would demand from society! Such communities were rare little art centers, and people payed top dollar to live there. And it was such an extravagant demand I was making to INSIST that it be possible for EVERYTHING to be within walking distance. How childish of me to make such expecations of society! Get a haircut! Get a job! Get a car! And get a life! The local town governments did NOT owe any such lifestyle to its citizens (especially the second-class ones who had no cars!)

After I got a car, I still found life disagreeable. I still preferred Huntington Village over Paoli. And I eventually began to put together some very fragmented clues about what I was sensing, and to reach a few critical, yet still incomplete conclusions. Some of my conclusions applied only to residential houses, others applied only to downtown areas, and then some conclusion applied to both.

I'll start with my general assessments for ALL buildings (residential houses and downtown districts alike).

I did figure out that I more keenly gravitated toward those buildings that seemed older, had traditional placements of windows and doors, were mostly symmetrical, and made judicious usage of ornamentation (whether in masonry or woodwork). And my most accute aversions were to glass boxes with faceless assymetrical aspects and a lack of connectedness with the buildings aroundn them.

As for downtown districts, I always hated it when buildings presented blank walls to the public instead of a row of windows. I admit I certainly saw the logic to having fewer windows (better security), but on a symbolic and psychological level it seemed so alienating and even smug. But I eventually chided myself for being so presumptuous as to besmirch the wisdom of succesful businessmen, seasoned security analysts, and risk management specialists, all because of some mystical and possibly even psychotic perception I had that a building was being "snotty" toward me. And so I dismissed my silly distaste for such buildings as trivial nitpicking and my own dumb layman's ignorance of the correct way to interpert good architecture.

Meanwhile, I also I began to develop a quiet aversion to those buildings that do not face the street front-and-center. Their sideways stances seemed to suggest that they were turning one shoulder to the world in an icy indifference, concerned with nothing but themselves and their slice of the GNP (more possible psychosis on my part). But, just like the practicality afforded in the better security found in less windows, I eventually began to realize the understandable logic of orienting a building like this: these buildings wanted to face their side-parking lots rather than the street to better service their car-driving customers. While I again told myself not to be so huffy about the trivial matter of aesthetics while some hard-working businessman was trying to make ends meet, I meanwhile noticed that the car-centric component of my hitheroto unrelated "practicality complaints" were now making a peculiar segue into my "aesthetic complaints." Hmmmm .... ugly buildings tended to be car-centered ... car-centered buildings tended to be ugly .... hmmmm ... that's quite a corrolary.... But! --Not wanting to follow down the same road as the conspiracy theorists who insist there's a sinister connection between Big Foot, UFO's and the Kennedy assasinations, I didn't want to shout "ah-HAH!" too soon and mistakenly insist I'd made some earth-shattering discovery.

As for residential houses, I realized that --like the downtown buildings-- I also disagreed when a house failed to face the street directly and stood somewhat askew on the lot. It struck me as "stand off-ish" (yet more of my possible psychosis!) And I also discerned that I hated it when a house was built in such a way that the garage door overpowered the entire front fascade and held the undeserved honor of being the one design element with the strongest connection to the street. (Many new houses do not even have a front walkway that goes on an independent pathway from the front door to the street, just to the driveway.) So once again: a car-centric connection was coming into play here. So bad aesthetics and a bad treatment of pedestrianism were perhaps related.

Or perhaps not. I had no way of truly knowing since I'm not an architect.

And yet still ... I struggled ....

I lacked the training. I lacked the vocabulary. I never saw any of this addressed on any news program, in any book, in any magazine article, TV show or movie. I was groping with my own insecurities and incomplete knowledge. As far as forgetting about it all --how could I? Every day I would somehow interact with concrete and blacktop and guard rails and box stores. I always drove past the same line up of buildings on the main drag, and was always ill-eased each and every time by the same vague sense that they were all in need of a serious rearranging, maybe even a pruning.

I have many times fantastized about re-doing the eight block stretch of Pine Point in Springfield:

  • adding second stories to several of the one-story storefronts,
  • re-orienting the hocky shop to make it face the street instead of its parking lot,
  • getting rid of the used car lot next to the public library and putting in a post office,
  • rennovating the three-story storefront that now sits abandoned and putting in a whole foods supermarket.
All together I wish there was a more cohesive unity to the overall arrangement of Pine Point. I wish for it, and I long for it, and I lament deeply whenever I drive through it and see the jumbled disarray of ill-organization and off-key confusion to its current structural profile. I remember as a kid when the pharmacy was at the top of that street, and the beauty parlor, and the barbor shop, and the dry cleaner, and the variety store. I remember when my mother would send me up the street with two dollars to buy a gallon of milk. I remember walking to the postal sub station and buying a roll of stamps for Christmas cards. I remember running to fill my brother's prescription as our mother took care of him. I remember walking to my ballet lessons every Satruday at 2:00. This used to be a real neighborhood once. Maybe it can be a real neigborhood again. Maybe I can draw up plans on paper and submit them ... somewhere. But I didn't know who to talk to or what words to use.

I have treid to find web sites with information about "villages" and "sidewalks" and "neighborhoods." I made up a make believe name for a non-existence group that whimsically I called "The American Sidewalk Federation." Google has been no help. I didn't know the correct search terms to trigger the right hit with the right web site to see if there were any like-minded peolpe out there besides me. So I remained alone in my longings, and suspected I was guilty of unhealthy nostalgia and needed to get over all this nonsense once and for all.

Whenever I would come out of my fantasy musings of civic planning for Pine Point and snap back to reality, I would often darkly accuse myself of being an anal retentive control freak with narcistic inclinations toward rearrange the whole world to suit my personal whims concerning "how things OUGHT to be." Afterall, no one else thinks like this ....... right??????

And then I found Mr. Kunstler's web site. I spent over nine hours straight on it last week. I feel like I've just been shown the light, hallelujah.

Below I itemize all of his positions that I agree with, and/or specifics about him that are similar to me.

He is NOT an architect, yet he deeply loves good archictecture.

He has no formal training in design or civic planning, yet always believed he had an intuitive sense for what well-designed buildings and excellently laid out towns should look like. And he demonstrastes vociferously just it is that old towns that were meticulously planned back in the decades and centuries before WWII. Those old neighborhoods represent the pinnacle of such excellence.

He always felt that virtually every last example of post-WWII archietcture has been heinously offensive and NOT well-designed at all, in spite of all the awards they garner.

He not only dislikes modern architecture, he despises it and resents when such buildings seek to arrogantly draw self-important attention to themselves and to DEFY the decorum of the established tone of a town. Those buildings do not harmoniously fit in with the pre-existing buildings and uphold a town's established character, they usurp it and rob the town of somethnig it once had and may now never get back.

He perceives that the only unifying quality held by all modern architects (and perpetuated by a pervasive elitism in the whole architedctural establishment) is the narcisistic ambition to produce ain't-I-cool wierdness with the sole intent of self-promotion --local history be damned, pre-established identity of a community be damned, and pedestrian-friendly civic planning be damned.

He yearns for urban districts whose building designs all collectively work together with one another to

  • follow traditional assignments of "decorum"
  • unify a civic district rather than splinter and confound it
  • contribute to the organic sense of logic to a comunity's layout.
As for "decorum," he he feels that a post office should know its proper place on the block, and that a museum should always (not sometimes but always) invoke a sense of history and granduer as opposed to a hyper look-at-me wierdness. He feels that the "important" buildings (such as the town hall and the school) should look the part, and the less noble ones (like the DMV) should defer to the others.

He believes there should be a priority in civic planning not just toward the CONVENIENCE of being able to walk everywhere, but also toward the NECESSITY of it, feeling that a true "village" with

  • walkable streets,
  • a close-concentration of housing AND civic buildings AND a diverse selection of merchant shops (called a "mixed-use" neighborhood)
  • buildings whose street-levels always have a friendly and meaningful relationship to pedestrians,
are not just archaic and irrelevent remnants of worthless nostalgia from yesteryear, but are all essential to maintaining the health of the village economy AND the human mind.

He laments and even rails against:

  • the lack of sidewalks being included in new construction projects, especially in new residential areas,
  • the useless narrowness of what few sidewalks are being built,
  • the unacceptable lack of any distance or buffer zone (like a grassy strip) between the road and what few sidewalks are being built,
  • the thoughtless positioning dead-center in the path of sidewalks given to fire hydrants, traffic lights, phone poles, etc,
  • the disrepair and neglect of pre-existing sidewalks,
  • the deliberate elimnation of pre-existing sidewalks,
  • the ocasssional, random, unpredictable, illogical, and even psychotic instances of sidewalks comming to a sudden and abrupt end right beside a road that obviously keeps going,
  • the prevalance of that sidewalk-less category of road called a "strip" which is often lined on both sides and down the center with guardrails --roads which are not only impregnanble to pedestrians, but are not even authorized for bus pick-up/drop-off due to the sheer danger posed to pedestrians by them,
  • the pedestrian-defying distance from a road and across its parking lot (or sometimes across its innavigable lawn which is often interrupted by an open drainage ditch) that many of today's newly built shops, civic buildings, and housing developments now command,
all of which contribute to the systematic elimniation of pedestrianism.

He sees the demise of sidewalks as a direct contributor to the current obesity epidemic.

He resents ANY building that either lacks a meaningful connection to the street, or positions itself on the lot so that it only has a vehicle-focused connection with the roadway and/or parking lot at the expense of any pedestrian-friendly connection with the sidewalk (if there even is a sidewalk).

He reels at the psychotic and incoherent variation to the frontage distances demonstrated in business properties located right along side each other on the same road and in the same zone. And yet there is an exact opposite practice found in residential neighborhoods whose houses all possess a mind-numbingly cookie-cutter identicalness. (Therefore, business real estate properties are allowed to assert their individuality, while human dwellings must adhere to a rigorous and draconian uniformity.)

All of this he believes. And he writes about it and lectures about it. And so now he has given me the words to say what I have felt for so long but never knew how to express.


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