7 September 2010


Parking lot in Palm Springs / photo by Doug Joyce

Something that James Kunstler wrote that really struck a chord with me. I'm not really in his camp here, but I what he says here rings true:

"The tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work [is] … a land full of places that are not worth caring about [and] will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending."JH Kunstler

Chamber of Commerce types, the garden club, and a few other socially aware recognize the value in an 'attractive' community.  Our solutions have been to buffer with landscaping, to separate, push back, and isolate buildings, to make sure that nothing gets too tall, and that everything has plenty of parking around it.

After a while, some people figure out that this is not really beautiful, it isn't like the places that we feel good to be in, and it's hard and inconvenient to live in and we don't know why.    The code is tinkered with, and groups (or groups) of citizens and professionals are formed to sit in judgement are added.   NIMBYS are mobilized and entitlements attorneys are paid a great deal of money so that dumb things can be built.  Along with the misplaced intention, there are a few small victories, and a few good buildings and places get built, but it is still is a place that neither looks or works like a beautiful city, and really doesn't feel like a place, as Kunstler says, worth defending.

We are attracted to cities because they bring people together, and afford opportunities in the chance to work together for our mutual benefit. The structures that make up a city, its physical presence, allow this to take place. If it is beautiful and it works well, it is exciting and a pleasure to be in.

The architects and designers that are good at this are the best at doing this, beyond code or regulatory body. Yet the layer upon layer of poorly written code, a front line of municipal administrators whose jobs are made safe by saying no, the panels who sit in judgement- more concerned with precedent setting then good design, finally topped off with inept political leadership buoyed by misinformed constituents, and you leave the designers of cities hopping on one foot with both arms tied behind their backs to do anything that is any good.

Owners and their architects do self-serving and bad design, yes it has been known to happen. But it is more common for designers to fight the good fight, to deal with the unbelievable complexities and make reasonably good projects. To recognize this would be nice, and it would be in our own best interests if we tried to help this creative process, rather then throwing down roadblocks. It is how we love where we live.

For now, it is the love of making great things, the imperative of craft, the need to transform, that inspires the craftsperson, that gets the few great things done.  Not a code for building setbacks, or a code for undulating building facades.  Not a permitting process that resembles a legal proceeding.  And not land-use policy whose prime motivators are sales tax revenue and car traffic flow.

No, it is all in the love of the craft.

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