Common Sense for the Uncommon City

The automobile that took our dwellings away from the city further procrastinate the fabric of the town centers it allowed to destroy. The homes that were built in the hype of suburbia also continue this trend of insult and degradation to our culture of any place at any time. The same model of living still exists 100 years later, and between the urban and suburban cores exist everything and nothing – a common fringe in all of America, whether in New York, Louisville, Dallas, Denver, or Los Angeles. We have misunderstood our tools as commodities, like hammers made of gold, and generation by generation we strive to find ourselves by latching onto the latest phone, computer, or car. Home, however, seems to be in a state of ambiguity.

Perhaps our model of living, dependency, information hoarding, and agricultural ignorance, has provided us with magnificent opportunities to realize our place on earth. As architects, are we not bound by a natural law or duty to teach the symptoms of our desires? Are we not to care for the land on which we build? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

The Suburban Model

After World War II, Americans had the opportunity to discover and test suburban growth and its consequences. As one of the greatest misallocations of natural resources in the history of man, suburbia’s greatest misallocation is the culture it created of individualism, territory, and seclusion that economically dissipated town centers across the country. We quickly found that satisfaction in efficiency could not supply our humanistic needs and innate desire to livesimply. It continues to follow the dwelling back into the city. As if Levittown has been stacked upon itself, our housing projects boast self-sufficiency while proving it impossible. In most cases, the dwelling is fully equipped with its own appliances, plumbing, and comforts – all in place to meet the assumed needs of the inhabitant. In the case of multifamily housing, every individual unit comes saturated with rarely used amenities that come at a high cost of additional material, labor, and the general air of wastefulness. Apartments and homes require storage for everything from cars to can openers, and as we delicately hide all of our things away our collections quietly form a shell for our quaint little lives.

What the suburban model reveals of our physical needs is it lacks in just about everything else. Efforts to collect as neighbors are few, and the external gestures of love rarely exist. Other models, such as those seen on the traditional college campus, use alternate methods of dwelling and routine to engage the user. Somewhat related to efficiency, the community style floor plate more importantly offers by design significantly higher levels of interaction, which is encouraged for anyone in that setting. In America, these models rarely exist outside the academic forum, though they clearly identify a social demand and opportune a solution that can be tested.

Live-work models, like those of early Virginia, also offer relief from energy and economic burdens – though burdens, though a tendency for passiveness at the street level rarely engages the passerby with more than a view inside. Housing models with these additional interactive elements should not sit idly and wait for visitors to be forced to use them, but truly invite all to take part. When models like these succeed, such is the case in New Orleans, a truly amazing life and culture thrives.

Culture and Design

The recent return back to city is a symptom of many diseases and medicines. Often, migrations are caused by political or social demands outside of the architect’s realm. Planners, contractors, and developers research emerging trends they are powerless to control, and then speculate opportunity for business – leaving the architect with the every-day proposals of the past. Rather than taking action, the building industry awaits in reaction for change, without risk, basking in the glory of an image, a dream.

The inhabitants of their immediate surroundings do not choose what is of value. How do developing parties value family, community, understanding and prosperity, the way Jefferson had intended? More importantly – how could anyone outside of this group expect this quantification process to ever be anything more than line items driving debit and credit evaluations of profitability? The material culture masked by notions of “community rooms” and “useful” amenities is rarely created by the actual needs of the inhabitant. Rather, they have been told (sold?) how to function in it, based on the business model they can afford to supply and participate in. Saturated with perverted schemes of value, order, and hierarchy, the architectural profession seems but a game with the viable causes of self-interest. Some may call it selfishness, but the architect is rarely enabled to ask, “What is to be built?”

The city is no more than a testing ground, a physical manifestation of what is ephemeral and what is long withstanding. The general population should have choice on how to live, where to live, and how to use their surroundings – yet there are no actual choices. Rather than justifying a scapegoat, architects should justify the rigorous methods of cause and effect to produce better environments for the future. There must be a resistance to the common and the architect must lead it.

Architect and Citizen

Today, the current models of living and working are detrimental to our humanity, yet we are quick to the next petty task or drawing, overlooking the consequences embodied in every single line. We can no longer continue on this trajectory to provide objects of the past without inquiry. The architect must provide for the people the tools that enable options unavailable, and further, must make use of every opportunity to ask, “What is to be built?” and “Why is it to be built?” We are called to be role models in this endeavor; to prove sustainable living is healthy and righteous in both body and faith. History will show if Jefferson’s plan for our dream is palpable by our fellow countrymen, and whether or not we may rise to the occasion to provide alternatives to the corrupt and offer solutions to the disaster the image of his dream has made.