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The Unreal America: Architecture & Illusion
by Katy Purviance on 03/08/10 @ 11:50:27 pm
Categories: Books | 2864 words | 1301 views

I read The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion by Ada Louise Huxtable a little while ago, and I just came across my notes. I thought I’d put them up here so you can read them, get intrigued, and maybe go read the book yourself.

Americans prefer entertainment, nostalgia, or never-never land to real places.

The publics is addicted to fakes and fantasies.

Instead of public architecture, or an architecture integrated into life and use, we have “trophy” buildings by “signature” architects.

Illusion has become a major part of the economy – it is the community used to fill that vacuum of imagination and ideas when commercial expediency builds to the bottom line.

In saving the thing, the thing is lost and a substitute provided; the past is as evanescent and irretrievable as time itself.

Vernacular is real.

What is being built is the result of the most successful marketing in history; the product is rigidly and restrictively formulaic.

Profit, not planning or, even remotely, public interest, is the generation.

“We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but we are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile.” – Miles Orvell

Architecture is the most immediate, expressive, and lasting art to ever record the human condition.

We pay homage to landmarks but are cavalier about their contect. The artificial environments we flock to in preference are one-dimensional con games by contrast, their attractions and satisfactions limited, illusory, and equally out for the money.

The change in the way in which we see the world around us – or, rather, don’t see it – has had a profound effect on our attitudes toward it. The inherited and inherent principles of the interaction of building and society are either actively ignored or deliberately overturned.

Serious architecture is…sidelined, trivalized, reduced to a decorative art or a developer’s gimmick, characterized by a pastiche of barrowed styles and shaky, subjective references, it is increasingly detached from the problems and processes through which contemporary life and creative necessity are actively engaged.

“The American imagination demands the real thing, and to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake…for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of a reincarnation…the ‘completely real’ becomes the ‘complete fake’…absolutely unreality is offered as real pretense.” – de Tocqueville

The popularity and progeny of Williamsburg have taught us to subvert reality on a grand scale, to prefer – and believe in – the sanitized and selective version of the past.

The act of preservation turns what has been “saved” into something else, as the same time that the improvements provide the economic base that “saves” it.

Sooner or later, image and function are defined and fixed in an artificial formula that combines sentiments, fashion, and tourist appeal.

“Will there be nothing in the historical centers of America or Europe between a tourism that denatures them and a squalor that degrades them?” – Andre Corboz

“Historic reproduction” is a semantic trap – its definitions and desires are set by the seductions of what survives – those rare, real, evanescent, and evocative pieces of the past that are ultimately betrayed or excised by the unreality of the restoration.

To express profound unease – when so many dedicated professionals struggle with the enormous tast of dealing with complex regulations, uncertain finances, and growing commercial competition while they try to keep what they know should not be lost – is to be considered remote and unsympathetic.

One is perceived as an enemy of the cause. I do not deny the need for the past, or the legitimacy and necessity of the movement that carries the preservation name, or the tragedy of the lost past when the destructive is brutal and willful. But I believe we can no longer wvade the reality of what we have achieved by expedient distortion or deliberate simulacrum, in forms to suit transient tastes and economic imperatives. In fact, to raise these issues at all, one must love the past very much.

The improved re-creation is valued over the flawed original or shabby survival; it is considered more iconic, representative, ideal, and congenial. For most, it has become the reality.

The perfect fake or impeccable restoration lack the hallmarks of time and place. They deny imperfections, alterations, and accomodations; they wipe out all the incidents of life and change. The worn stone, the chaffed corner, the threshold low and uneven from many feet, that marks on walls and windows that carry the presence and message of remembered hands and eyes – all of those accumulated accidental, suggestive, and genuine imprints that imbue the artifact with its history and continuity, that have stayed with it in its conditioning passage through – or absent or erased… The objects and places simply do not resonate. They are mute. They are hollow history.

We have invented a new past according to a set of criteria designed to satisfy our own current needs and standards. In today’s fractured and deeply troubled society the need is for something that comforts, reassures, and entertains – a world where harsh truths can be suspended or forgotten for a benign and soothing, preferably distracting, substitute. The nostaligic simplification of feel-good, participatory, romanticized history are the popular and profitable answer. To reinforce the myth of more rigorous “interpretation” and accuracy, we use increasingly sophisticated tools of invention and support: the “scientific” research of chemistry, the computer, skilled domestic achaeology, the discipline and discoveries of material culture. The familiar, formulaic procedure defines the brand of preservation that has become a staple of today’s tourism, and is an increasingly importatn part of local economies, often the main support of small historic towns that have lost their business base to suburban malls.

This is called “extermination by museumfication.” – Baudrillard

Public policy in the country, particularly in Republican administrations, is to see expenditures for preservation as in a league with original sin. In the US, the public sector has no funds for urban investment, least of all for anything that involves appropriate planning and design. Private investment defines quality of life as some up-front luxury trim and a few recreational amenities thrown in by the developer. Public policy militates against anything better; private interests recognize only exploitative and potentially profitable flourishes.

More people have experiences Disney’s fantasy environments than have visited the places that have inspired them; the clean and cozy, abbreviated and adulterated versions of the Vieux Carre of New Orleans, divested of the distractions of dirt, crime, and ethnic diversity, are preferred to the city itself.

Disney’s Main Street USA evokes entertainment and thereby cancels out the meaning and value of history and form.

Duany-Plater-Zyberk have reduced the difination of community to a romantic social aesthetic emphasizing front porches, historic styles, and walking distances to stores and schools as an answer to suburban sprawl.

People of our mobile, family-fragmented society crave the kind of neighborhood community that disappeared with an extinct way of life. Modernist and neotraditionalits alike rely on aesthetic solutions to the social problems created by urban sprawl. Also like the modernist, who “created machine-age images of “rational” cities that, when actually built, often functioned miserably” (Herbert Muschamp), the appealing and simplistically pretty towns ignore the history and messages of reality for an idealized small-town reality. It is an architecture for the Prozac age.

Perhaps there is a different message nobody wants to hear.

We were told taht criticisms were irrelevant because the Disney product, good or bad, is clearly what people want. That begs the question of how people know what they want without options, including products and opportunities they have never seen nor experienced.

The fact that City Walk is witty and sophisticated has not kept it from being an instant success…restained understatement is not a component of today’s pop sensibility.

It is a truism of American business praactice that standards are raised only when competition demands it.

“I define wit and fantasy differently: as a freeing if the mind and spirit to explore unknown places, rather than a handshake from some unconvincingly costumes actors in a totally predictable and humdrum context.”

These places fill a need that is not about to go away. It is not that people are voting for these enterprises in positive terms; they are simply responding to the satifaction of a need in the most passive way.

The real now imitates the imitation. Towns are remaking themselves, and developments are casting themselves in the theme park image, given a stage-set presence from a look to a complete concept carried out to the last “authetic” touch.

This is not Hometown America; it is upscale Never-Never Land with pricetags in the millions to match. It is a new kind of developer house – a two-story atrium entrance, with the omnipresent Palladenoid window above double doors, is designed specifcially to impress. This grand entry leads to the Great Room, as it has been named by real estate sales offices, into which the kitchen-family room has evolved.In this large, all-purpose social and entertaining center, the latest equipment coexists with current decorating fashions. There is an exit to an outdoor deck (gone is he bugless screened porch of yesteryear) with a ritual gas or charcoal grill. A vestigial living room has become an extention of furnishings for “gracious living.” Cathedral ceilings soar, topped with skylights galore…

The gesture most commonly made is the wrong one: the commissioning of “celebrity” architects to produce “signature buildings,” themed trivia that only celebrates and compounds the degenerative process.

John Cheever, writing in 1978 of the New England fast-food stands that resemble the House of Seven Gables or Colonial Williamsburg, believes that these images are “not picked for their charm or their claim to a past; [but] because we are a homeless people looking at nightfall for a window in which a lamp burns, and an interior warmed by an open fire, where we will be fed and understood and loved…” Cheever sees it as an escape from the solitary and mundane that marks so much of the present human condition. “The rash of utterly false mansards, false, small-paned windows, and electric candlesticks is the heart’s cry of a lonely, lonely people.” Eco discerns another kind of emptiness in the rage for replicas. “A vacuum of memories,” he calls it, “a present without depth.”

There are generations for whom the mall is the substitute urban experience. Thus the ultimate absurdity is achieved: an edited and appropriated version of exactly those distinguishing, organic features of a city that characterizes it, reducced to a merchandizing theme – the city as sales promotion.

The American shopping center is not, as commonly believed, an indigenous, spontaneous expression of instinctive or intuitive cultural and consumer patterns, something as American as the lag, as natural and inevitable as free choice and free enterprise can make it…It is, of course, a one-sided con game, in which the investor, not the consumer, always wins. There are no real choices, either those of natural selection or of a free market. Both concept and design are calculated elements in a skillful and strategic marketing plan, specifically targeted and carefully replicated. Whether the complex takes the form of a converted landmark or glitzy new construction, the underlying principle is the same. Whatever the style, the result is rigidly and exclusionistically shaped by a carefully devised formula based on the essential kind and number of shops – department store anchors, specialty retail and restaurant chains – considered necessary for an established level of merchandizing profit. In every case, success or failure is measured strictly in terms of dollars per square foot.

The real estate, financing, and marketing expertise and the scale of investment required have limited the field to large developers with major resources, virtually eliminating competition. Established patterns are repeated rigidly and uniformly; no one tinkers with what works. The look, quality level, and general ambience are determined by meticulously researched consumer profiles that go beyond income analyss and buying habits to “psychographics,” which identify “aspirations as well as needs…identity as well as income.” Thism in turn, sets the nature of the stores, their merchandise and mix, number and location. The deadly sameness that marks these places is absolutely intentional. This fine-tuned calculation is repeated for simmilar areas, subject to adjustment as needed. Restrictive clauses in leases set and maintain guidelines that specify everything from design to rpices. This standardization of setting and goods is meant to guarantee a meticulously conceived and predictable profit formula and cash flow, as much as the better-publicized aim or acceptable uses and atmosphere.

But the more one experiences the “mall miracle,” and the more it replaces the downtowns and small communities that it destroys and makes obsolete, becoming progressively and increasingly shabby and empty, the clearer it becomes that something crucial and vital is missing. What is not so clear to the consuming public is that this something is exactly what has been deliberately eliminated from all the calculations by those who have control of them. THere has been little awareness, and less scrutiny, of the kind of controls exercised and what has been deliberately eliminated or lost.

Entrepreneurship has nothing to do with what Anerica wants; it is instead a function of alnd values, lending practices, leveraged real estate development, and conglomerate corporate ownership looking to the enormous bottom line.

The mall has become the substitute for the publuc square, minus our constitutional freedoms.

Our culture is a function of investment economics.

“Faux” fits. It is everywhere today, because it is so right for what is so wrong. Skewed in meaning, rather than indicating falseness, it gives a stamp of approval to the blantantly unreal, a suggestion of class to the frankly inferior. Using athe French faux makes the fake chic; it gives the phony cachet. It goes with the same state of mind that sees architecture as a gift wrap and accepts tarted-up history. Something real has been perverted, and something important has been abdicated. The result is faux architecture.

This state of mind has made possible the drearier aspects of postmodernism – pompier works with Tootsie Roll moldings and cartoon cartouches, cardboard cutouts and apaer thin pretensions. These buildings are not witty and learned references to anything; they are carcatures, stand-up jokes, ponderous one-liners.

We love those retro cottages and freshly minted Classical villsa to which everyone can instantly relate witout being of the manor and money–born; no matter that their expensively and consciously understated and overdone detail turns correctness into a too perfect grossness…We admire glib contectual solutions that are as unreal and irrelevant as their fake stonework trim and as permanently meaningful as the next building cycle. We tolerate sloppy free-fall history and surface novelties where paraphrase is considered an act of creative design and, supposedly, of irony and art. We accept the casual rip-off Punk Pallaidian skyscrapers with breathlessly overscaled, drop-dead lobbies above which everything else is shamelessly standard bottom-line. Games are being played, with marginally convincing results that are far less witty and wonderful than advertised. This theatrical pseudoarchitecture gets all the lines – praised, publicized, and generally accepted as the real thing.

We are being told that it has become more important for architecture to be than to serve, to send messages than to fill needs, to exist as an art object in itsef than to be integrated through its art into the rich and complex totality of life and use that makes this the most far-reaching art of all. From there it is not far to the revolutionary claim that architecture can completely reject its intrinsic nature as a social art because of the antisocial nature of the time.

Style as become divorced from both use and structure; style is its own excuse for being. Today form follows feeling. Desire was the suppressed word for both the Victorian and the modernist; today desire, not utility, dictates design. Style responds to a different purpose and vision. Style is dream, inventionm wish fulfillment. “Appropriate” is in the eye and mind of the creator and/or beholder, and the definaition changes with the dream… Identity is a product of the mood and the moment; the persona is the clothes that hang in the closet.

History used like wallpaper trashes both history and architecture.

In spite of their size, these structures hardly command a second glance. There is something so flat, so lacking in density and conviction that their offensiveness virtually evaporates; they fail even at being seriously awful.

To design without the challenge and discipline of solving real problems is to go beyond trivialty to irrelevance. To speak of background buildings vs. signature buildings turns context into a visual game, instead of an accomodation with history and society’ it reduces the city to absurdity.

Only the outrageous gets attention today, and the outrageous in architecture has a limited usefullness. Without the accelerated shock apeal that keeps other art forms in the public eye, the audience for innovative buildings, or for buildings as an art form, consists largely of professionals or patrons; it barely reverberates with the general public. The new architecture may be the best kept secret in the arts.

Art never stands still.

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