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.
Really insightful critique, which reminds me of Kenneth Frampton's despair about the role of architecture in the modern megalopolis. Thanks for pointing me to the Pope essay, look forward to reading it.
Indeed it is disheartening to see the way architects have been obsessing over the urban core to the neglect of everything else. My intellectual engagement this side of architectural theory is limited and mostly comes via Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House" and Venturi's "Learning From Las Vegas"; that latter book, especially, I would have expected to guide architects toward a more inclusive view of the suburbs. However it seems they have disregarded Venturi's advice.
Your points about he lack of public space were quite appreciated. It is harder and harder to find neutral ground for the kinds of half-informal, half-serious talk that is often uncomfortable when held in one's own home, although I would hope that coffee shops would make a resurgence in this area (sadly, however, they are the kind of business that struggles the most during the process of gentrification; the large, rambly, open-late coffee shops get replaced with Starbucks once the developers buy up the old neighborhoods).
Perhaps Arcade Fire's question at the end of "Mountains Beyond Mountains" —"Will we ever get away from the sprawl?" — must be answered in the negative.