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Wed

02

May

2007

Compost Nation - Kunstler
Wednesday, 02 May 2007 14:18
by James Kunstser

At the urging of an editor, I took an anecdote out of my 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere. It concerned my visit to interview the husband-and-wife "star" architects (starchitects, we now say) Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown. I was in the early information-gathering stage of the book and was unsure which authorities in this-our-nation-under-God might help me understand why America had become such a nightmarish panorama of highway strips and cartoon housing subdivisions. I really wanted to know.

I knew a tiny bit about Venturi and Scott Brown. They had put out a trendy monograph in 1972 titled Learning From Las Vegas that had earned them much esteem on the campuses as architectural metaphysicians. It purported to inform America that the highway strip was here to stay, that it was the new Main Street USA, they said, and that it was pretty much okay. Venturi, solo, was the author of previous book (Complexity and Contradiction) that pretended to thumb its nose at Modernist orthodoxy. So, I figured that a talk with these birds might, at least, begin to shed some light on my subject.

It was a very bad day in the Venturi / Scott Brown office in Philadelphia when I showed up, representing The New York Times Sunday Magazine (for whom I was also cooking up an article along these lines). Not bad because of me, necessarily, but because a bunch of "suits" from the Walt Disney Corporation had dropped in earlier that morning unannounced ( ! ) -- one of the little tricks that Disney liked to pull on its subcontractors. Some months earlier, Venturi and Scott Brown's office had been hired to design the grand monumental entrance boulevard to Euro-Disney, and now the Seven Dwarfs in neckties were in the office all of a sudden to see how the work was coming. Oy vey.

So it was hardly me that they were disturbed about, really, but I had complicated matters by showing up, and I suppose they felt they had to take a writer from the NY Times Magazine seriously because they liked getting into its pages -- being very shrewd self-publicists. The upshot was that Venturi and Scott Brown were running split shifts between me in a conference room downstairs, and the Seven Dwarfs up on the production floor of the 80-person architectural office. And I was kind of maundering through a laundry list of questions that I'd cobbled together to get their opinion on how come America was so, well, so fucking ugly, to put it as unceremoniously as possible. Venturi, a teddy-bear of a man, would kind of blink at me and try to explain that architecture was no longer about heroic, self-aggrandizing monuments but about the tastes and values of the masses. . . and then he'd roll his eyes and scoot out of the room and go try to mollify the Seven Dwarfs. Scott Brown would then come in and attempt to entertain my pain-in-the-ass questions, but her irritation mounted visibly as the minutes ticked by, and finally she exploded at me, hollering, "If this country isn't tidy enough for you, move to Switzerland!"

Incidentally, that's not the part of the anecdote that the editor considered "unkind." I will save that part for some other blog or memoir. But it brings me to my theme for today, which is how I traveled yesterday to Saratoga's neighboring town to south, Ballston Spa (the county seat), one of a hundred decrepitating little Main Street burgs in upstate New York, and how it seemed to be visibly rotting into the ground to an extent that even I, after decades of laborious landscape pathology studies, found rather shocking.

Spring comes late up here. I was down in Georgia back in February and the daffodils there were already gone by, for goodness sake. But up here, they had barely sprouted as of the last week in April. The landscape (and townscape) had a horrible sort of laid bare look -- like an old person in the intensive care unit getting a sponge bath in bed. The ground itself looked scrofulous, with vast quantities of plastic flotsam littering the roadside swales, and tatters of windblown plastic supermarket bags hanging off the sumac bushes, and no foliage yet to hide any of it.

But it was the buildings that really got me. You have to wonder: have Americans forgotten how to build dignified houses, or are we simply not dignified people anymore? Virtually every building put up after 1950 looked terrible and many of them were rotting into the ground. Most of them are little more than elaborate packing crates with a few doo-dads screwed on -- exactly the kind of buildings, by the way, that Venturi and Scott Brown celebrated in their writings. They called them "decorated sheds," the vernacular expression of the mainstream American soul.

The design failures of these things might be attributed to a loss of knowledge and a lack of attention to details, but I think a deeper explanation has to do with the diminishing returns of technology. We've never had more awesome power tools for workers in the building trades. We have compound miter saws, electric spline joiners, laser-guided tape measures, and many other nifty innovations, and we've never seen, in the aggregate, worse work done by so many carpenters. For most of them, apparently, getting a plain one-by-four door-surround to meet at a 45-degree miter without a quarter-inch gap is asking too much. In other words, we now have amazing tools and no skill. What you wonder is whether the latter is a function of the former. Is the work so bad because we expect the tools to have all the skill?

Another issue is the choice of materials. As you march down the decades from the 1950s, the materials-of-choice for finishing the exterior are more and more materials not found in nature. Aluminum siding was a big favorite for a while -- and you can always spot it because of the dents below the three-foot high level, where the lawnmower has shot stones at the panels for decades. After the 1980s, there is a distinct acceleration in the use of vinyl for practically everything. The vinyl clapboards, soffits, window-surrounds, et cetera, are often little more than stapled onto the house. And naturally they begin to sag and pull apart instantly. After twenty-odd years of that you end up with a house that looks like a birthday present wrapped by a five-year-old.

Another thing you get is a fantastic accumulation of automobile exhaust in the zone starting about four feet under the eves. The pathetic slobs who live in these buildings never wash this patina of grime off their houses -- because the vinyl cladding was sold to them as being "maintenance-free."

At this time of year, before the shrubs leaf out, you can see that each house is surrounded by an asteroid belt of discarded effluvia -- plastic children's toys, broken appliances, odds-and-ends of sporting equipment, all oxidizing, polymerizing, and delaminating under the remorseless ultraviolet light. Likewise, the things that have come to be attached to the houses -- the entrance porticoes and decks built out of chemicalized lumber (which has not been painted in twenty-seven years) -- these things are also, finally, coming apart, torquing out of plumb, disintegrating, in short yielding to all the disordering forces of entropy.

Paradoxically, the buildings which tend to be in better condition are the historic ones, the ones built before modular-snap-together materials existed, the ones made of materials found in nature, the ones built with non-electric hand tools. They manage to resist the natural ravages of time. Their roofs were designed to bear snow loads and to shed water in a way that protected the rest of the structure. The materials never promised to be maintenance-free, so the owners and caretakers naturally perform the required routine repairs. They stand there as reminders that our notion of progress-through-technology is a slippery thing.

Poor little Ballston Spa. The whole town is rotting into the ground and the folks who live there are either too poor, too addled on methadrine, too busy buying plasma TVs, too greedy strip-mining their buildings for Section-8 rentals, or too conditioned by failure and disappointment to take care of their property. It's a self-reinforcing feedback loop, of course, and it's happening all over the nation. We've succeeded in building too many things that aren't worth caring about, and the end result is that we now live in a land where nothing is taken care of.
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a guest said:

0
Work at home
Sir: YOU SAID IT!

When I return to Flint, Michigan where I grew up, I am astonished at the numbers of empty lots because the houses were torn down and removed' after being stripped of materials. Most of the houses built in the 1930's and 1940's were hand built. What will replace them?
One thing I note is that the laborers hired to do the construction work now mainly are uneducated, non-unionized, non-certified, un-licensed immigrant laborers. They are eager to work and do so with determination, however, not backed up with close supervision. Who's to blame? Contractors looking for more profit, home buyers looking for a lower price, not enough taxes to pay true building inspectors, or just dunno and don't care. Like the excessive slang in our language and the continued corsening of our speech, our standards are steadily falling.
Thanks for writing this article, Mr. Kunstler.
 
May 02, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

Russell Wellen said:

0
Heartsick. . .
. . . is how driving through parts of upstate New York makes me feel. The dilapidation James cites, as well as the poverty that saps the inhabitants and owners of houses of the will and wherewithal to maintain them.

"Geography of Nowhere," which I read only last year, opened my eyes. It was all new to me. I highly recommend it.

Regarding housing, at this point Americans are just happy to have a home, never mind how it looks or affects the quality of their lives. I never thought I'd see the day where people would pay so much for apartments, row houses or starter homes.

The comment about "decorated shacks" was disgusting in its condescension.

Today's power tools can be compared to word processing applications. One would have thought they enabled workmanship and craft. Instead they're used primarily to increase productivity.

Regarding lack of maintenance, many landlords (like mine) of rental houses do little or no upkeep, inside or out. Guess they figure if they sell the house in poor shape they can still get a good price for it. Not for much longer.

Thanks for a great post, James.
 
May 02, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Read Christopher Alexander
I appreciate your commentary and have followed your writing for many years. While I agree with most of your observations it would be nice to hear about some of the positive developments in the American landscape. One place you might start is to talk to and or read what Christopher Alexander has to say about the whole process of building a living landscape. His website www.patternlanguage.com, has a good introduction to a lot of great ideas for turning this mess around.
Keep up the good work and lighten up the light at the end of the tunnel might not be a train coming.
 
May 02, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

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