8 votes

The age of average


  1. Atvelonis
    (edited )
    Thank you for sharing this article. I value analyses like this, though deriding "sameness" in architecture is less new than I imagine the author believes, and also only part of the story: There is...

    Thank you for sharing this article. I value analyses like this, though deriding "sameness" in architecture is less new than I imagine the author believes, and also only part of the story:

    Cities once felt rooted in time and place. The Victorian grandeur of London. The Art Deco glamour of New York. The neon modernity of Tokyo. But with anodyne architecture spreading across the United States, cities are beginning to lose their contextual identities. They are all starting to look the same.

    There is some irony in suggesting that these unified styles of architecture somehow lacked internal "sameness." Regardless, the "authenticity" that these designs apparently have mostly comes from their being from the semi-distant past (not too close, not too far); a time in our cultural history that we value, at least superficially. However, if you read old architectural critiques, New York's now-beloved brownstones were considered hideous by many eminent persons when they were proliferating. Frankly, I don't see why five-over-ones are different. They are pretty boring, but they operate in the same paradigm that "architecture represents cultural values" as any historical style.

    In the 21st century, we do value a streamlined "sameness" in daily life, so it should come as no surprise that we (sometimes) live in buildings that represent this. It's a physical manifestation of capitalism. We intentionally structure our lives in a way that highlights efficiency and claims to maximize it because we believe that there's a correlation between productivity and "success." (Where happiness fits into the picture is murky.) The aesthetically spurious utilitarianism of modern architecture is not just a cultural fad but a natural outgrowth of a choice to prioritize construction velocity and affordability over "grounding" aesthetics. There is some merit to that, and I understand why it's become prevalent.

    Admittedly I'm taking the above a bit out of context, because I do like the quote that follows:

    Institutional developers march forward, ignorant of what makes Portland, Maine different from Portland, Oregon, or Philadelphia from Kansas City. Unique local traditions? Completely different climates? Hah! Joke’s on us. A box fits just as well in any of these places.

    The author's concern with "sameness" seems to be less about sameness as a concept but rather its scope. I sympathize with the premise that the entire nation is being swept by merely one trend, because I think five-over-ones are kind of ugly, but the reality is that this is just one instance in a historical pattern: larger, but deceptively so. Two hundred years ago, the city you lived in was effectively the entire world. Technology has since expanded the scope of an individual's "world" such that what your city meant in 1823 is equivalent—for the privileged audience of this article—to what a whole state, country, or continent means in 2023. It shouldn't be surprising that the individual's desire for quotidian sameness in their environment has extended correspondingly.

    From an individual's perspective, the Victorian design philosophy in a given city encroaches on established neighborhoods in the same way that the Capitalist Minimalist design philosophy in a given country encroaches on established cities. Aesthetic diversity can exist on infinitely granular levels; you just get used to what you have access to. This article is implicitly concerned with cultural erasure happening on a large scale, which I obviously agree is a concern, but this is only intelligible if we understand our sense of relativity. If we exclusively use a bird's-eye view framing of scale, then we actually miss out on the experience of people embodying a particular culture at a particular time. The idea of "everywhere" is not an absolute figure, so we should try to engage with the idea of something appearing or disappearing "everywhere" using an understanding of what our "everywhere" as privileged people in the West in 2023 is. It's not a universal constant; it's entirely contextual.

    In this vein, the author doesn't spend much time on what I find the most important specific critique in this article, which is that architecture ought to serve a functional purpose for its physical context, but modern design is somewhat more focused on aesthetic for its own sake than utility (i.e. that capitalism is more interested in the veneer of utilitarianism than the real thing). This is really an environmental critique and is best exemplified by the tendency in American culture to value living in large homes on isolated, "picturesque" plots of land accessible only by salt-drowned asphalt roads; often built in floodplains; and with little consideration of rainfall patterns, wildlife, and native flora. The "sameness" of this design choice is problematic like that of a five-over-one, but I would draw the distinction that one of these has a relatively small environmental footprint for the number of people it houses and the other has a relatively large one (this is efficiency talking); and that environmentalism is more important than aesthetics (this is ethics talking). There's some unstated nuance here.

    My takeaway isn't that people following trends in home décor, design, architecture, and fashion ought to be undesirable, and certainly not that boxy minimalism shall beget the end of times. Rather, we should understand why trends happen and how our understanding of trends is, in fact, a kind of "trend" in itself—a dynamic representation of our cultural values in the present moment. The optimist within me also tries to recognize that there is and will always be a surprising amount of diversity within a culture that is supposedly dominated by one value, belief, architecture, or design. If everything truly feels exactly the same, we aren't looking at it in the right way.

    5 votes
  2. rosco
    I really enjoyed this piece. I've been having this conversation for a few years, but more on how everywhere you travel to feels the same. For me this feeling cemented in 2013 when I went to Beirut...

    I really enjoyed this piece. I've been having this conversation for a few years, but more on how everywhere you travel to feels the same. For me this feeling cemented in 2013 when I went to Beirut for the first time for work. I used to work in the preservation of heritage so architecture and historic buildings were front of mind when I travelled. When I landed in Beirut for the first time I was so excited to see some of the historical wonders I had only dreamed of previously. What actually awaited me was more of a mall. The faux marble "Home Depot prefab kitchen vibe" that has permeated every country was on grand display in Beirut. The stores were all the same, Prada/Gucci/Louis... or some version of small corner store. The little heritage left in the ancient city could be found tucked under glass plating in a few parking garages, accounting offices, or perhaps as the remnants of a column tucked in the back of a park. It was quite disappointing. When I got out of Beirut and visited Biblos or Tyre things were slightly more varied, however most of it resembled much of the global south were cinderblock/rebar construction is king. Again, there were few iconically Lebanese places. With the help of some of the local team I was working with I was able to find a souk that had survived the expansion of the malls and some remnants of the powerful caliphates that had one ruled there. However my overwhelming feeling most the time was a feeling of displacement or detachment. I could be anywhere.

    This feeling continued throughout most of my trips, even those with local collaborators, and I realized it's globalization and efficiency that is driving it. Modern building practices have streamlined design and materials to a degree where that have largely usurped historically dominant regional preferences. It now depends more on the wealth of the city, town, or village than the local. I found this incredibly depressing.

    But I do take some solace in the fact that we may be the last generation to actually experience the traditional, historic structures. At least we got to have that. I lived in Spain for a short stint and really enjoyed visiting the regions where tobacco is grown. I don't smoke much myself but they tended to be in some of the most beautiful areas like Extremadura. In these regions you can see the drying barns or "secaderos" that were historically made from offset stacked bricks to allow for maximum airflow while still protecting from moisture. Through the offset bricks you can see the hanging tobacco and it has a very traditional feel. I loved seeing them. However nearer to big cities, next to each of these secaderos would be newly constructed sheet metal ones. The kind of building that could be found in any part of the world for almost any commercial purpose. The old secaderos were crumbling and would likely soon be gone. That gave me an odd melacholy feeling. While they would soon be gone, I had gotten to experience them. I got to explore the world while there was still a semblance of regionality. And I'm both happy about that and sad for future generations.

    What struck me most about much of this "global" construction is that it seems to be driven from the top and disliked or even reviled from your average person. When I was in Beirut a number of folks decried the family and company, Soldera, that was responsible for much of the construction. They spoke of the backroom deals behind the countries president and his brother who was president of the large developer turning Beirut into an international cosmopolitan. They didn't shop of Gucci. They couldn't enter or enjoy most of the city. They had lost their souks and the places they had grown up in. I can only image what it is like now following the explosion.

    I know most of my narrative stinks of rose colored glasses and some of you may be familiar in my belief that the world isn't improving but just changing. But I truly believe that much of what is happening isn't benefitting the average person in any of these countries. I think it benefits the wealthy and the powerful. My hope is that some of the grassroots groups recapturing local identity, particularly those in areas where it has been actively suppressed, will start a revolution of reclaiming their culture. They will demand their local traditions be respected and that community space be retained for the community, not for the wealthy passing through. I realize that I'm turning a post about aesthetics into a post about class warfare, but I think that is what this is. The wealthy globalists increasing their profitability and regional productivity over the traditions, happiness, and prosperity of local communities.

    Edit: I think my last comment would be not to "kick down" on the common person, as if we've all decided to become monochromatic and boring. This has been pushed onto us. This has been sold to us. We are a symptom of a much larger disease.

    4 votes