Why has architecture become an exercise in stage set building?

strip mall illustrationStaff illustration


ON THE PRAIRIE WHERE I LIVE arises a strip mall. It looks like it belongs on the French Riviera: turrets and arches, awnings, balconies with wrought iron railings…

Well, I’ve never been to the French Riviera, but in this ignorance is my point.

The everyday buildings we build around us want to be anything but everyday. They want to be stage sets of Somewhere Else. And their proliferation seems to suggest that everywhere we Americans go, we want to be Somewhere Else. Getting up in the morning on the Moran Prairie, where the deer and the antelope used to roam, we have our cereal, and then we must drive by Something Mediterranean on our way to Washington State University’s Riverpoint campus in Spokane.

It is an irony that the hot topic in teaching architectural theory these days is “sense of place.” Faculty write about it. Students stress over it. Academic conferences are held on it. What is “sense of place,” or it’s near cousin: “sense of community?” Whatever these mysterious substances are, search the history of architecture, and you’ll find that past cultures did not fret about these matters. One reason is because they had sense of place. It never occurred to them to go looking for it.

It is only we—we in our postmodern, poststructuralist, post-this and post-that culture—it is only we who wonder where sense of place as gone, like a set of keys we misplaced some time ago, but only recently came to realize it is no longer among our belongings.

Our loss of sense of place—and our frenetic architectural attempts at creating stage sets of places (albeit Somewhere Else kinds of places)—may be part of the price we have paid for allowing our relationship to nature to be substituted by technology understood as nature. The French sociologist and legal scholar Jacques Ellul was the first to proffer this discernment. In past cultures, he writes, people used tools—by which Ellul generally meant hand-tools—to relate to nature. It was always a tenuous negotiation: nature was treated with the deference it was due, because, to put it in colloquial terms, it’s bigger than the both of us.

Consider those old house-raisings of yesteryear. Trees had to be felled, and the wood dressed; folks worked together to dig the foundations, erect the frame, nail on the roof and siding. Come mealtime, they cooked, gave thanks, and ate together, while their children frolicked on the grass. Ellul would call such a house-raising a technical operation; it takes place on the stage of nature, with human-scale tools wielded in accord with human-scale limitations. And in process, and over time, a community achieved the sense of belonging not only with their locale, but also with one another.

Nowadays we have New Urbanist towns—dressed up to look like New England towns of yesteryear—erected almost overnight on acres and acres of land shaped by bulldozers and earthmovers. Rather than a technical operation, Ellul calls this a technical phenomenon, in that it is like an impersonal act of nature itself, unmediated by human concerns—at least not by human concerns on the scale of individual identities.

Such is the stage set of the new “old” town center at the Kentlands, a 352-acre New Urbanist community in Maryland. The Kentlands didn’t come about by neighbors pitching in. Quite the contrary: one commentator has called it “a new town in seven days.” Only overwhelming technological force can make something like this—this stage set—possible. It is a technological phenomenon, in Ellulian terms.

And there is tremendous confidence that these overnight technological phenomena can create sense of community. Says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a leading proponent of New Urbanism, and designer of the Kentlands: “By providing a full range of housing types and workplaces . . . the bonds of an authentic community are formed. . . . By promoting suitable civic buildings, democratic initiatives are encouraged and the organic evolution of society is secured.” The audacity of this claim is breathtaking; it amounts to nothing less than a prediction that the right stage set will bring about the right sense of community.

Whenever I travel the country, I make it a point to go visit New Urbanist towns like the Kentlands, because they are uniformly hailed in the architectural literature as places having sense of community. I would ask people on the street—if I could find them; often it takes a two-income couple working long hours Somewhere Else to afford the sense of community a place like the Kentlands offers—I would ask them questions. For instance, I asked a grandmother who had just moved to the Kentlands from New York City, “Do you own a car?”—this, because New Urbanist theory emphasizes sidewalks and discourages auto traffic as a way to achieve sense of community. “Well, I started out without a car,” she said, “but I got one in about a month. You really do need a car to get around . . .”

I asked a young couple in Laguna West, a New Urbanist community south of Sacramento, whether they take the train to get to where they need to go—this, because New Urbanism promotes mass transit as another way to achieve sense of community. “Well, we’ve heard something about that, but the nearest train stop is the next exit north on I-5.”

Why has architecture become an exercise in stage set building? It is a serious question, because architecture always expresses in physical forms a culture’s deepest yearnings. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, those deep yearnings were transcendental. Whether it was Greek ideals of perfect proportion, which produced the Parthenon, or Christian ideals of heaven, which produced Notre Dame Cathedral, architecture emerged when communities strove to express transcendental values in physical forms.

The Industrial Revolution replaced yearning for the transcendental with yearning for the natural. Was man part of nature? Or should he create a new nature with the Machine? John Ruskin, bemoaning the impersonality of the Machine, famously said that a building can only be happy if it is carved by happy carvers. And the young Frank Lloyd Wright, more accepting of the machine, designed his Robie House in Chicago to resonate with the horizontal and wide-open spaces of the American prairie. Meanwhile, the Modernists wanted to totally substitute nature with the Machine. And they were very successful: today’s glass and steel boxes in urban jungles all over the world are the fruit of their gospel.

But from the transcendental, to the natural, to . . . what? Well, to the virtual. Today’s communal yearning is for the virtual, spurred on not by an industrial revolution, but by a cybernetic revolution, the total consequences of which are still hard to imagine. Far from laboriously carving stone—happy or otherwise—far from tediously drawing pictures of buildings with ink on linen—as Wright did—architects today are waltzing through the spaces of their buildings in “virtual reality.” They can make those buildings simply appear and disappear on their computer screens.

So why not make them appear and disappear in “real” life? Why not dress up a strip mall to look like a Mediterranean villa? Just send a tornado of bulldozers in there and—poof!—the French Riviera appears on Spokane’s South Hill.

And disappear? Well, do you remember what happened to Seattle’s Kingdome? Boom! Just like that, they blew the Kingdome to kingdom come. It was part of a trend. Starting with Baltimore’s Camden Yards, cities all over the United States blew up (perfectly functional) old sports stadiums—just to build new stadiums disguised to look old. Yes, we want stadiums with wrought iron fences, small-town eateries, bleachers evoking the Little League parks of our memories. Can’t make that happen with the Kingdome, that concrete monstrosity? Simple. Just blow it up. Make it disappear. That’s the way it is with architecture in an age of the virtual.

But here is the dilemma: Yearnings for the transcendental and yearnings for the natural all resulted in various kinds of senses of community. The funny thing about yearning for the virtual is that, by definition, sense of place is always Somewhere Else.

Just around the corner from the Mediterranean strip mall on Spokane’s Moran Prairie is another strip mall that recently⁠—poof!—appeared. It’s something Medieval and Something Swiss Chalet—and all of it on Something Steroid. One of the most prominent features of the façade is an archway bisected by a column in the middle. That is one of the fiercest gestures of medieval design, evoking disruption, brute force⁠—the bow with the arrow cocked, ready to let fly and kill.

Behind that fierce façade is a coffee shop; I think they also sell wraps. I know, because I put my armor on and went in there, and asked them a few questions . . .

For the first time in architectural history, what a building looks like on the outside can have nothing to do with what it does on the inside. Why? That, I think, should be a hot topic for teaching architectural theory. Because architecture always expresses a culture’s deepest yearnings.

David Wang is professor of architecture at WSU’s Spokane Interdisciplinary Design Institute.