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The Pavilion of Dreams
Albert Pope published an excellent essay this week about the predominantly suburban character of the American built environment and architects’ failure to engage with that realm or shape it in any meaningful way. Pope describes how the architectural profession has instead restricted its focus to “traditional urban cores,” which now make up less than 30 percent of the urbanized United States by area. The architect’s primary role within the historical city, Pope writes, “is to serve as an agent of gentrification”—to increase the value of that recognizable urban fabric, an increasingly scarce resource, and something we find surprisingly difficult to create more of. In contrast to the walkable centers of metropolitan New York, San Francisco, Boston, and DC (among others), the country’s more prevalent (and growing) suburban landscape is not really designed at all, at least not by architects—it is largely the product of real estate development and infrastructural constraints, overlaid with aesthetic patterns that are easy to inexpensively replicate. If this is an existential crisis for the architectural profession, it’s not a new one—it has been acknowledged for decades—but architects’ uninvolvement with the majority of the American landscape is arguably more of a problem for the people who inhabit that landscape. And if it seems laughable that the absence of architects would pose a problem for anyone, that could be because the field has declined the opportunity to prove otherwise.
The phenomenon Pope describes is essentially that of widespread privatization. “We are running out of historical urban infrastructure of continuous blocks and streets that support not only the spaces of public inclusion but the construction of a coherent city,” he writes. “We no longer construct traditional urbanism, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and have not done so for the past 70 years.” This suburban inclination, enabled by the automobile above all, is why the American populace is probably the best housed in world history, but achieving that has required sacrifices, and public space was one of them. Pope’s assessment of the suburban landscape may be a bit too harsh—it is heterogenous and contains multitudes—but he is basically right, and the group most negatively impacted is not the people who have opted into it, but those who are priced out of the scarce and ever-gentrifying traditional urban fabric that remains, and then forced into the suburban periphery. “Gentrification is not pushing displaced individuals out into older, dilapidated urban areas where they can reclaim their public status as a coherent constituency. They are instead being pushed out into suburban oblivion. In the suburbs today, there is no public world for those disenfranchised by gentrification to reinhabit, notwithstanding the advent of virtual spaces…Today’s victims of gentrification are pushed into a totally privatized world defined by cultural, political, and economic exclusion.”
What Pope’s essay clarified for me (and my firsthand observations confirm) is that even the urban cores of cities are more suburban than we realize. In the United States, living in a dense city is less an alternative to the broader suburban condition than another facet of it—the symbolic exception that proves the rule. Making real estate more valuable is increasingly a central function of cities, and more so the larger and more globally connected the city is. From this perspective, urban housing shortages are a feature, not a bug, and building more housing (for affluent tenants) is merely a way to provide investors and speculators with more material, rather than a way to ultimately accommodate everyone who wants to live in a given city. As Pope writes, “the lack of urban construction has accelerated gentrification because the traditional infrastructure that remains is a limited commodity subject to price escalations common in any finite market.” Crime and homelessness are merely obstacles to this ongoing project, not meant to be solved so much as compartmentalized and separated from the sites of value creation. The suburbs, meanwhile, are the default residential option, a vast ocean ready to absorb whatever population the cities can’t hold as their cost of living becomes prohibitive to a larger group. As soon as “the historical building stock is turned over to the tourists and to the one percent, only the suburbs remain.” Any credible definition of urbanism, meanwhile, should be something that strives to apply to everyone.
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