The first prerequisite of community-building is hope because people without hope will not build. This fundamental rule of building applies from the scale of building personal relationships to the scale of building a nation.
We face a challenge in the US, the likes of which nobody born since the Great Depression has ever seen. Nearly everything we have built since the end of World War II was built according to the pattern of sprawl, where you separate everything from everything else and connect them all with highways so that we drive everywhere to get anywhere. This cannot continue… the costs of sprawl will soon become too great to bear. Already, our auto-dependent lifestyles are making us poor.
The core problem with sprawl is that we have built so much of it. Most of us live there now, so we can't just all walk away as fuel prices rise. The building of sprawl created much of the wealth of our nation for the past 66 years… the abandonment of such a mammoth investment would surely ruin us all.
So what do we do? We must find a way to recover from this addiction to auto-dependent lifestyles, and transform the subdivisions, strip malls, office parks, and industrial parks we have built into places that can be sustained in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.
This blog will soon launch a 12-Step Program for Sprawl Recovery, but before we get started with that, let's think about the prerequisite of hope. Because without hope, we will not change. Today, some really smart people (whom I respect very highly for other reasons, by the way) have put together guidelines and rules of thumb which poison the transition from sprawl to sustainable places because they make it appear that most places have no hope of succeeding with their transformation.
The classic example of a poison guideline is the "corner store requirement." The best experts say that you can't even support a corner store with less than 1,000 homes… and for pretty much every other type of retail establishment, you need even more "rooftops."
What percentage of New Urbanist neighborhoods have been planned with 1,000 people within walking distance of the corner store? A tiny fraction… definitely less than 10%. Seaside, Florida, the first New Urbanist town, has less than 2/3 that many homes. So had these places followed the best experts' advice, roughly 90% of them (those with less than 1,000 homes per neighborhood) would have never even built the corner store. Seaside and all those other places would have been little more than pretty subdivisions with alleys and sidewalks. Following the best advice would have completely gutted the New Urbanism movement.
But what happened instead? Robert and Daryl Davis, the Town Founders of Seaside, were not burdened with that expert advice because there was no advice in 1980 on how to build a town… only on how to build a subdivision. So they set out, with planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, to figure it out. From then until now, they have created a legend.
Today, Seaside is a regional center for the coolest shops, restaurants, night spots, bookstores, and yes, a corner grocery. Daryl, who took the reins of business development at Seaside, did not know that what she was setting out to do was supposedly impossible. As a result, she has nurtured literally hundreds of businesses to life. Some have failed, of course, but some have also spawned multiple establishments across the region. None of this would have happened had Daryl been poisoned with the idea that you can't even support a single corner store without 1,000 homes.
The problem with these guidelines is that they are all built on the assumption of the continuation of sprawl. In other words, what can you build when there's thriving sprawl all around you, sucking customers away to malls, strip centers, and office parks? That was a fair proposition until the Meltdown, because until then, true neighborhoods were a tiny anomaly in the enormous American development machine. And if you were trying to do business completely embedded in that paradigm, it probably was a good idea to follow the rules.
But there have always been other ways of doing business and building places. There's more than one dial to turn, in other words. If you don't have 1,000 homes in your neighborhood, there are many other ways to make businesses work. For example, are you actually embedded in sprawl, or do you out in the country with a captive audience of neighbors that are more likely to do business with your corner store because everything else is too far away? If you're remote, you can make it on far less than 1,000 homes.
Do you have unusually cool shops, like Daryl is expert at creating? Are you the only nearby place that sells the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal? Does your corner store have the best espresso for miles around? How about the ice cream shop… can you build your own sundae? Does your grocer actually know you, and will she order the peach salsa you request, trusting that if you like it, others might do so as well?
All these things and many more are factors that make businesses work, when all the normal business models say they have no hope. That's because the business models are based on averages. But if you want to build a great place, you should probably be anything but average.
The same rule of thumb applies to sprawl recovery as well. If your neighborhood wants to transform itself to avoid sprawl's inevitable continuing slide in real estate values for decades to come, then your neighborhood needs to transform itself into something remarkable. Shooting for average doesn't create hope… working to be remarkable usually does. So be remarkable.
Note: This is the first in what promises to be an extended Blogoff on the viability of neighborhood retail. As other blog posts respond to this one, I'll list their links below.
High architecture and the arts have each mutated from Modernism into something dark and disturbing. Metastasizing unchecked, it is Kryptonite to our hopes for a sustainable future. How did we get here?
When Modernism Was Actually Modern
Early Modernism was born with an underlying necessity of uniqueness. In other words, if you want to be significant, your work must be unique. Previously, architecture was judged first by the standard of "how good is it?" Modernism changed the prime standard to "how new is it?" Because of this new standard, traditional work, no matter how good, had no chance of being considered. Only after passing the standard of newness was architecture then evaluated by the old standard of "how good is it?"
The necessity of uniqueness clearly fueled a lot of creativity and inventiveness in the early years, but it was largely rational invention. Early Modernists were able to be both modern and sensible. Look at how Wright, Mies, Gropius, Corbu, Loos, and others carried weight down through a building to the ground, for example. Normally, it made perfect sense. Regardless of whether or not you liked the sleek, spare expression, you could understand how the architecture worked, and why. These were the heroic years of Modernism.
The Lost Generation
The Achilles Heel of the necessity of uniqueness became apparent only very slowly in the decades after World War II. The early Modernists had plumbed most of the depths of rational Modernism before the War. Afterward, it became increasingly difficult to develop an architectural expression that was both unique and sensible. Architects slowly and painfully woke up to the gnawing question of "what do we do now?" It must have been something akin to a long hangover, after the decades-long party that was the optimistic and heady early days of Modernism.
This period, sometimes known as the Dark Ages of Architecture, arguably produced some of the most soulless, sterile, and depressing buildings humanity has ever known. It signature style was Brutalism, which certainly lived up to its name. The larger cultural malaise of the 1970s was hauntingly parallel to the listlessness of Modernism, which had clearly lost its way.
1980 was a turning point. At the time, there was great boiling discontent with the Lost Generation; it was obvious that change was coming. For a short time in the late 1970s, the rebels had all inhabited the same camp. Stern, Graves, Mayne and Gehry were all mentioned in the same breath. But the divide wasn't long in coming. Half of the rebels went back to the original precept of Modernism (be unique) even though it meant that they had to be irrational. The Irrationalists went on to become most of today's Starchitects. The Rationalists, on the other hand, became either New Urbanists or New Traditionalists, or most likely both.
There are countless ways of being irrational, many of which are relatively harmless. The Irrationalists, however, chose a particularly poisonous way: To be transgressional is to intentionally transgress common wisdom or practice. This disturbs or appalls many people. So if you want to be really efficient with your transgressions, why not cut right to the chase and simply do work that most find disturbing and shocking?
Artists today are considered "mere illustrators" if they don't challenge our core beliefs. Planners who design places that feel like home to most are derided as "purveyors of kitsch." Architects that design buildings non-architects can love are scorned as "soppy sentimentalists."
While Modernism may have startled many a century ago, that was never the point in the early years. Quite the contrary: Read the early masters and it becomes clear that they expected the working class to welcome them with open arms. The fact that most people turned away is beside the point. Modernism never intended to shock, appall, or disgust people. Instead, it intended to save them from their squalid, oppressed settings. Today's work isn't Modernism at all. It's
Transgressionalism Transgressionism* is the complete antithesis to sustainability for several reasons: First, we can only achieve sustainability by engaging everyone because our consumption is increasing faster than the engineers' ability to mitigate with increased efficiency. You don't change most people's hearts about the way they're living by insulting or traumatizing them.
Next, if we're going to share the wisdom of green building broadly, the worst possible thing we could do is to require the architects to make those buildings unique because when uniqueness is the highest standard, we're not allowed to share wisdom. That would be considered plagiarism.
Interestingly, the early Modernists' uniqueness was only a shadow of things to come. Mies had his own personal language of architecture. Corbu had at least two. Wright developed three or four languages during his career, depending on how finely you want to parse his work. It might seem incredible, but the favorite starchitects of the recent past such as Gehry, Calatrava and Libeskind are now ridiculed for "self-plagiarism." In other words, their current buildings look a bit like their last buildings. Unbelievable! Today, the high standard of greatness is apparently held by Zaha Hadid, who is known for inventing a completely new architectural language for each building.
Another important thing: because
Transgressionalism's Transgressionism's* first move is to discard common wisdom, it naturally disposes of everything that has been proven over centuries of building in a region. All out the window. If it's known to work, we can't possibly use it. That would be sappy sentimental plagiarism. Transgressionalists Transgressionists* sometimes try to cloak themselves in science, but any true scientist would be completely appalled at this sorry state of affairs.
The Wall of Terminal Weirdness
Transgressionalism Transgressionism* is facing an impending cataclysm, but most are currently oblivious to the inevitable collapse. Today, if you want to be significant, you have to out-weird Zaha. But to be significant in 5 years, you've got to out-weird the architect that out-weirded Zaha. This death spiral of Transgressionalism will eventually reach the Wall of Terminal Weirdness, where things cannot get any stranger. Let's hope it happens soon, so we can get on with the business of remaking our world in a sustainable way.
*Ann Daigle pointed out in a listserv discussion that the simpler "Transgressionism" was a better term than "Transgressionalism." I agree, and have changed all of the instances except the title of the post, since that might upset the search engines.