Land Development Strategy on Autopilot
First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us”
Sir Winston Churchill
“Motion is the aesthetic of modern man”
Maybe it was driving through a crowded parking lot, looking for a parking space. In amidst the row of SUV’s there appeared to be an empty space, only to come upon it and discover that it’s simply a smaller car packed between the Escalades. Or maybe it’s noticing the difference in scale between neighborhoods built at different decades; and that their scale varies directly with the size of their garages. Whether we want to acknowledge this or not, we’re designing our housing stock around our taste in automobiles.
“In the Industrial Age: first we build our cars, then build our communities around them”
Take the ’51 Ford as example. In retrospect, it might seem to be something akin to a lunchbucket on wheels; yet in it’s day, it was a Ford’s first revolutionary design of the modern automotive era. Revolutionary in more ways than one; as the embodiment of the GI Housing Bill and the Interstate Highway Act of a few years later, it conquered countless acres of former rural farmland and helped populate these territories with people and commercial strips.
In 1951, the sought after housing stock was a single family home of two, maybe three bedrooms with only one gathering space not related to food. These houses were probably configured as two separate levels, one being built inside a roof attic space to conserve materials, thus price. It allowed its occupants to spend more money on other things, like fancier cars…
Later on, by the late 1960’s, it was commonplace to expect our cars and houses to be exuberantly flamboyant. Houses had grown into sprawling ranches and split levels; despite experiments with swoopy rooflines, they still weren’t too large in floor area.
Instead, individual houses sat on large plots of land, requiring cars to ferry their occupants back and forth. The idea of a two car family had just entered American lexicon, a two car garage proudly displayed to the street was a status symbol to behold. Cars enveloped similarly swoopy masses of sheet metal, they were difficult to manouever through city street. Chicago reverted many of its neighborhood streets to one way traffic, to accommodate these vehicles.
The freshness of sixties design got a bit tired, then mired in the seventies. Maybe it was the energy crunch, or maybe it was by a series of laws that controlled, rather than encouraged design. By the time the eighties came to be, a book by Jane Jacobs “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” came to be better accepted, and we sought ways to do more with less. A few indulgences came in small packages. Sudden interest in condominiums and townhouses were met by happy buyers in BMW 5 Series sedans. Oddly, while we learned to drive more fuel efficient cars, we started to drive more cars, it really didn’t stem our consumption of resources. We rebuilt our cities, yet kept developing new suburbs. We simply found ways to use more resources.
These days, we have McMansions and SUV’s of all sizes, though the family units that live inside the McMansions are smaller than what lived in the 50’s or 60’s tract homes. The McMansions lack design originality, though they boast rare and expensive finishes, like kitchens with granite countertops. Didn’t the original marble cladding of the Amoco Building mine out one of Michelangelo’s historic marble quaries? Our freeways are constantly choked with traffic. Our expectations have become supersized as we simply want more of everything – good design doesn’t really count, just that there be more of it! The car enveloped by a swoopy mass of sheet metal in the late 1960’s is no larger in floor area than a 21st century full size SUV, yet our SUV’s take up considerably more volume and weigh substantially more. And about the original marble cladding of the Amoco Building – once it was removed due to damage, wasn’t it pulverized and used as roadbed gravel for an extension of the Stevenson Expressway?
It makes one wonder about the preponderance of human nature to simply go on autopilot without question: where would we be now if during the fifties and sixties, we had stuck not to the large cars but rather to concepts like the original Austin Mini or Fiat 500; the concepts being produced in Detroit as Ramblers or Crossleys. Would our cities be much more geographically compact, would we be using public transit more often, and would we be living our lives in public rather than in the cocoons of gated communities?
“How often I found where I should be going, only by setting out for somewhere else”
Written by Darrel G. Babuk, Architect AAA, NCARB, MRAIC