A building at Exeter College. This photo represents the dream of modernism: elegant buildings situated in lush environments. The building sits lightly on the land. The strong, low horizontal form contrasts well with the sloping ground. The dark skin blends well with the surroundings. These combine, perhaps, to impart to the building’s inhabitants a feeling of connection to the earth and to it’s viewers a sense of harmony of man and nature.
There is just one problem with the vision of design. And it is a fatal flaw.
If all buildings and landscapes are designed like this, then by necessity, a city becomes very spread out. No matter the density of an individual building, the overall city sprawls to great distances. Walking, biking and mass transportation become difficult, if not impossible; private cars become the only realistic transport option. Publicly funded infrastructure is very expensive to install and maintain. Single use buildings kill street life, creating a retreat into the private realm. In this one picture, I can trace the decline of urban America, and by extension, public life in the U.S.
The problem is not the individual cases, which often are stunning in their beauty. The problem lies in the near universal application of the theory of modernist architecture set in landscaped grounds. This is found in nearly every highway commercial strip in the U.S. In those places, we see disconnected, single-single buildings, adorned with token landscaping, accessible only by private car.
Our mental adherence to this design theory has placed us in a very vulnerable position regarding the very real limits of resources and finances. It has also exacerbated global warming, as inefficient land use increases carbon use.
We must return to our urban roots – those small scale, jumbled, walkable places that humans created and sustained over the last few thousand years. The problem lies in the spaces between our buildings; there too will be found the answers. We must reclaim those spaces, which will mean giving up the dream of buildings set in parks. Those spaces, and in many cases the buildings themselves, must be re-purposed, changed into denser mixed use places. Will we be able to dream a new dream?