Monday, July 04, 2005

Interstates Are a Modernist Plot

As a kid, I used to love International style architecture, best exemplified in the enormous glass-and-steel tower blocks designed by architectural firm Owings, Skidmore and Merrill. Clean, simple, monumental, designed for purity of principle, not for people. I didn't realise then that they were also yet another child of Modernism, the less-imposing predecessor form.

America used to have roads and highways connecting all her cities. Travel was an adventure; novelty was around every turn. But in the Fifties, under President Eisenhower and the anti-Communist imperative, we had to connect our cities with Pure Transport Ability. And so the interstate sytem was born, the ultimate reduction of road to concrete ribbon. Soon, all cities were reduced to the same concrete ribbons and cloverleaf interchanges dotted with the same hotel chains, restaurant chains, gas chains, etc. The vast diversity of America languished, hidden away.

I was reminded of all this in today's Bleat by James Lileks. Like him, I've since come to value the individuality, the history and the inherited or borrowed styles that used to define the regions of this country.

Memphis front door used to the the Mississippi riverfront. Literally. Boats and later steamships used to roll right up to the cobblestones lining the banks to disgorge passengers and cargo. Up a ways from the banks were the Bluffs, on which sat the many businesses that did trade with those ships and their cargos.

Nowadays, our front door is somewhere out around Wolf Chase Galleria, which looks pretty much like a thousand other regional malls surrounded by dozens of big box stores and acres of parking. The city doesn't suddenly appear as it once did to travellers on the few roads leading into Memphis, but creeps up endlessly with signs and offramps and hints of something down below the interstate.

As more and more Americans began to drive further and further in their cars, as more and more trucks appeared to bridge the gap between local and railroad, highways sprang up. And anyone could pour some macadam to hook up their little business to the newly invigorating highway. But the Interstate is about control; minimalism is the ultimate level of control. "Form follows function" is still an architectural maxim, but in Modernism and later Internationalism it was distilled into "Purity of form is perfection of function," which became authoritarianism writ above the human scale. Highways were everywhere, but interstates offered only a handful of opportunities to connect. The same commercial and social imperatives that drove the shape and style of American's highways yearn to reach the interstate but are constrained. In that constraint the old market values of supply (limited by design) and demand (reaching travellers) conspire to drive up prices, and so limit what gets to the intersections.

The profoundly American diversity of small towns and cities, where the generic needs of food, restaurants and stores were met locally in every conceivable way, yielded to the corporate cost-saving solution as access improved. Now, Americans can easily travel distances that few of their ancestors would ever have attempted (the trip from Collierville to Memphis was once a two-day affair). But it's at the cost of finding that every destination is the same as every other, and the same as the place they left.

No point to this, except that Lileks started me down this road of thought and its late. Happy Fourth of July.

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