After exhausting the local libraries for Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsburg, Bowles, et al, an immersion into American fiction and poetry of the 1940s and 1950s has made newer fiction particularly bland. I’ve tried newer stuff – novels that have won all sorts of awards – and find them to be soupy, warmed-up oatmeal compared to what was going on right after World War 2. In 21st century America, our anxieties and fears have made our stomachs so twitchy that soupy, warmed-up oatmeal may be the only thing we can really digest anymore.
Oddly, I find recent architecture the same. Knowing how the software works, I see the buildings celebrated in magazines as sketchup models, or Revit masses, and not particuarly well designed ones either.
A house under construction close by here has a splitface concrete block pillar, with a girth about eight feet or so. It rises up behind a “frame” and is now being decorated with a little medallion of reclaimed wood. This passes for modern architecture today, I suppose. There isn’t much reason for the pillar, except to stop the rather bad chi coming at the house’s front from a cross street. It seems like gestural architecture.
What was once a design ethic, a “no-style” style, has now become just another half-hearted manipulation of hipster materials like reclaimed wood, draped onto forms that are easy to create in Sketchup. Make a floating rectangular mass, offset the four faces by a foot or so, push the center rectangle in until it becomes a void, and hey presto! there’s a form.
Meaningless Modernism isn’t half as bad, however, as the ungainly, flat traditional housing that passes for shelter elsewhere in the city. The marketplace has reduced every historical design style down to a vague, generic box with lots of gables facing the street, large windows out of proportion to the size of the building, and a kind of demoralizing noncommittal character. They are usually finished with wattle-and-daub (stucco, or whatever you may want to call it) and are busy and awkward without fitting onto their lots or sharing any dialogue with their neighbors.
I’m not all about architecture that has to shout “look at me,” and I feel like buildings that behave well together do make a nice neighborhood. So many of the newer contributions to our streets, however, regardless of style, seem to be deaf and dumb, with empty eyes wide open staring at the street or the sky in a kind of atavistic wonder.
It is the combination of the primitive and the very affluent which is the deadening effect. These houses are not even dingbats. They aren’t big enough to be mcmansions; instead they are just zombies.
And speaking of zombies, the new America of the 21st century has taken some getting used to. Gone are the quirky little side streets…gone are the people who live in the swamp, off the grid and disconnected from the mainstream…gone are the unpretentious pockets of honest architecture in small towns.
Instead, we are now all six-laned, large-turning-radius, long-traffic-light America. We are now the America of the Commercial Strip. We have managed to obliterate regionalism, in favor of the American Road. You don’t have local color anymore, because local color just gets you into trouble. All the tiny little restaurants must now vy for facebook likes and off-the-beaten-path hipster chic social media feeds.
Instead, I am learning to love our new culture. American culture is Starbucks and Target Urbanism, and our brands give us sanctuary. If you do try something local and independent, it better measure up to these standards, or woe to the retailer who tries to carve a different pathway.
I am learning to love an America that just feeds off of itself, in a sort of cannibal consumerism that remains the envy of the world. Thronging sidewalks are not found in downtown Orlando, or downtown anywhere, because in downtowns, they still produce stuff – lawyers produce lawsuits, financial types produce wealth, and generally service industries produce, well, something useful.
No, in our new, 21st century America, our most intensely populated urban scenes are places like South Beach and Downtown Disney. Today, at downtown Disney, the avalanche of visitors was clearly a sign that we have arrived. Urbanism is now a fine leisure activity, and we have reached the level where we consume urban experiences as the most elite way of expressing our prosperity.
We drive, park, and then walk along the downtown Disney boardwalk, not for a service, not for a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with work colleagues or to make widgets in a factory. Instead, we do this just…to do it. We lick ice cream, avoid strollers and plod along the sidewalk because we like it.
The 21st century America is one with unprecedented leisure time and wealth, and we are using this to dine, entertain, and shop with our fellow human beings.
This is a highly complex, sophisticated 21st century America. Regulations have never been higher. Every aspect of our lives has some kind of code or law governing how we deal with it, whether “it” is food, a service, driving, parking, walking, seeking healing, expressing ourselves in different ways. Dozens — no, thousands of laws and codes govern each step of our journey, much like the airwaves vibrate with thousands of unseen radio frequencies.
We are paradoxically moving at a frenetic pace, and yet we feel so often at a standstill, a paradox that produces a uniquely 21st century anxiety and fear. We are paradoxically free to prosper any way we can, and yet we are so constrained with laws and codes, further increasing our anxiety and fear. The boredom and lack of variety that arises from the triumph of American consumerism is also a curse. And yet we revel in it.
I’m trying real hard to love it.