The new homogeneity

"Graph Paper Architecture" by Saul Steinberg 1954

The explorer in all of us delights in moving beyond civilization’s edge, seeking a place where human structures dissolve into the wilderness.  For me, the return from the Everglades had a different effect:  I reveled in nature’s rich variety, in contrast with our current urbanized form that is remarkably homogenous.  Anywhere in Florida, and much of the country, one experiences a new sense of sameness in the texture and pace.  America has entered a period when our buildings, roads, and infrastructure are uniform, differing only in the details.  We live in a very standardized America today, and this is the quiet strength of our country.

If there is any doubt about the new homogeneity, look no farther than the commercial strips that have come to dominate the 21st century experience.  These strips are our marketplace, the town square writ large, and are a study in careful, intentional uniformity. Commercial America, from New York to California, is smoothly uniform in both large scale and details to a startling degree, differentiated only by local geography.  Although criticized for its aesthetic monotony, our commercial environment unifies our national experience.  The endless asphalt strip expresses the contemporary American lifestyle, a way of ordering our space that represents our participation in the high-energy global economy.  It’s ugly, but it works; so goes consumerism.

Businesses competing for the customer dollar ensure familiarity and efficiency, and this uniformity extends to the design of the store, both inside and out.  From the front door to the street, a precise series of moves are choreographed around the invisible practices of safety, security, and barrier-free flow from the car door to the cash register. All of these dictate uniformity of design, a certain monolithic character, which moves the customer effortlessly from merchandise to the point of sale to the driveway.

standardized design

The driveway leads to the street.  While we yearn for alternatives to the car, we still cling to its super-mobility.  This influence begets a rigid, standardized design to which all pavement is built. Lights, signs, intersections, and the pulse and rhythm of the road all become one.  Gone, for the most part, are local eccentricities such as stoplights turned sideways; arrived are broad, well-lit roadways with the same signals everywhere, built with the future in mind.  This, again, is a strength.  Americans have always been mobile, and with this standardization, effortless freedom of movement allows a state of supermobility to be imagined, if not quite achieved.

Meanwhile, America’s building industry climbed a series of regulatory steps in the last several generations, and today’s built environment is more uniform and less specific to its particular locale, instead taking on a vague, broad national character that is barrier-free and safe.  Starting with the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and continuing today with the International Building Code, standardization has become a quiet but powerful movement.

The ADA sought to remove the localized, obstacle-ridden geography that restricted a large population with sensory or mobility difficulties from having access to buildings and places.  Since then, a substantial portion of our constructed world has been built with these rules, and older buildings have been adjusted to remove barriers.  With this act, deliberate intent has caused much of America to look the same, from the way our sidewalks rise up from the street to the size of our public bathrooms.

More broadly, building codes became standardized too.  In the 1990s, the International Building Code converged three regional codes into one.  Building codes, which go back to Hammurabi’s time, have evolved into exquisitely complicated texts, annotated like the Talmud and as complex as the tax code.  With the real estate development economy normalized at a national scale, it became more efficient to deliver the same product everywhere, rather than customize an office or a store to local eccentricities.  This sameness, again, allows supermobility to meet sales and productivity metrics from one place to another, and indeed smooths the path for a new, migratory America to evolve.  This again is a strength, if efficiency is any measure of things.

Local codes still customize structures to particular locales; California requires resistance to seismic activity, and Florida protects against hurricanes.  A lot of idiosyncratic localisms have been done away with, however; nuances that did little to protect anybody.   A wood building in the Midwest, for example, was called a Type Five building, while in the south it was Type Six, with accompanying detailed descriptions differing in little details.  These were all melded into one wood-frame building type by the new code, simplifying national-scale construction and design, and eliminating wastefulness.  Like the standardization movement that occurred in the 1920s, this convergence of codes promotes a common system of definitions and measures of firmness and safety.

Intertwined with this rather massive regulatory convergence is, of course, the globalization of the economy.  Standardization of materials was critical to be able to import key products from overseas manufacturing, and for a national real estate developer to assure similar costs from coast to coast.  Sameness is a virtue, from an accounting perspective.

Should this sameness be doubted, interview any offshore visitor about their American experience, and while American behavior may generate complaints, the American built environment inspires awe and respect.  “Why can’t we have this in our country,” more than one international guest has bitterly questioned me, usually pointing to a clean, well-ordered aspect of place that we take for granted.  “America,” stated one South American to me recently, “is still the safest place to buy real estate, because of your standardization.”  Monotony and safety make for a dull sense of place, but great property values.

How this came about is a study in our faith in the future.  America has always had a sense of faith that things will get better even in the darkest of times.  This faith in the future seems lost today if one focuses merely on the surface, and the general deterioration of our national conversation.   Our actions, however, are different than our words, and our actions – widening roads, consolidating codes, standardizing infrastructure – are those of a people in the process of perfecting our built environment.  Only a people who care about the future would be doing this.

American roads and buildings are not precious; we are not a sentimental people, by and large, when it comes to our physical environment.  There is emerging out of the past a certain American style of place that is a product of our society’s character.

The monolithic cartesian grid of the 21st century

This style of place is barrier-free, safe, and guarded well against disaster.  This character transcends the superficial notion of “style” and goes more to a uniform, shared sense of place.  Monotonous, yes; as all standardization tends to become.  It goes, however, to a greater value we place upon planning and design.

A positive byproduct of this style of place is equity; roads (except toll roads) can be travelled by all, and buildings are built safely for all to dwell.  Another positive byproduct of this style is efficiency, speeding up the process of rolling out new infrastructure.  A final byproduct of this style is the future, giving our children’s generation a simplified infrastructure with one operating manual.

What our progeny does with this infrastructure is up, of course, to them.  Imperial Rome standardized town-making just as it lost the ability to govern itself; whether we overcome this tendency is still an open question.  This uniformity is explicit today, and will be a tacit scaffold upon which a unique, more localized future can be built, celebrating the specific geography and society of each individual place.  Suffocating monotony can perhaps give way to flexibility, creativity, and character expressing diversity and culture as we move into the future.