Throw Out the Architrash

America is in thrall to cutting edgistas.

Andres Duany, the urbanist and architect, once remarked that you could stand at the center of any American downtown and see many excellent buildings dating from before World War II but find hardly any bad ones—and that from the same vantage, you could see any number of perfectly horrible post-World War II buildings and probably not find a single good one.

The sad state of urban America, from the small town to the metropolis, has sent a terrible message to the public, which is that we are inept, that our every attempt to build anything new results in some kind of failure and disappointment, and worse, that this is to be expected as the absolute norm. Worst of all, it has destroyed the confidence that our culture is even capable of delivering a future worth living in. Where building is concerned, we are all cynics now.

For decades, the siting of new buildings has tended toward the abysmally antiurban. We tuck office towers behind ridiculous landscaping fantasias (to conceal the absence of retail on the ground floor), which confuses things further by ruralizing the city. The amount of municipal money wasted on juniper shrubs and bark mulch, for instance, is out of this world. We stick apartment towers on dreary blank-wall masonry podiums that act like fortifications. More commonly, we isolate buildings in parking lagoons to accommodate our tragic national addiction to cars. All these things degrade the quality of civic life.

There have been signal improvements in reforming and raising the standards of urban design all over America the past 10 years, largely due to the dogged work of the New Urbanists, led by Duany and others. These days, new buildings in a downtown are likely to meet the sidewalk properly and even include something more compelling than blank walls, dwarf evergreens, or concrete planters—namely, retail trade. But architectural standards for the buildings themselves almost always lag far behind. That is to say, the relationship between buildings and the public realm has improved, but the buildings themselves often still suck out loud. 

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