On architcture and urban design

October 20, 2006 at 9:02 pm (Planning, Portland)

Here is my latest 1-page masterpiece for my landscape architecture class:

Few could plausibly argue against the notion that the era of auto-oriented, strip commercial development has introduced a bland monotony to the American landscape.  Endless rows of fast food restaurants, large retail stores, and gas stations are found in virtually every metropolitan area, and they are nearly indistinguishable from each other.  It isn’t that those places lack a sense of place per se, but rather that the sense of place they embody is unpalatable to most academics, environmentalists, and design professionals.  In much of America, however, shopping malls and Wal-Marts have become the new town commons.  In West Virginia, where I grew up, these establishments are where you must go to purchase virtually everything, where people can find a job, where teenagers congregate and socialize.  They are the corporatized, 21st Century version of Market Street.

Despite this, if the soul of a culture is reflected in its landscape design, as Lewis suggests, then a transplant to America might think that we are a somewhat vacuous society.  Our metropolitan areas seem to lack variety, originality, or any real defining characteristics.  This is true not only of suburban housing and commercial developments, which bear the brunt of criticism, but also of our cities.  Many American cities are lacking in architectural variety.  This is particularly true of western cities, where urbanization has occurred relatively recently.  Portland is unique in that our “grid” creates unusually small blocks, but otherwise we exemplify this trend.

Increasing density and revitalizing the urban core are laudable goals, but the Pearl District and South Waterfront are typical cookie-cutter, “McCondo” developments.  The Pearl District is San Diego’s Gaslight District, with shorter buildings.  South Waterfront is Vancouver’s Coal Harbor.  These urban condo canyons, adjacent to freeways and technologically identical, are becoming the new strip developments, uninspiring, varying only slightly in shape and color, universally exportable.  They are havens for the rich, investment properties, insipid representations of a desired urban experience.  Building a trolley, a faux-wetland, or even a baseball stadium cannot obscure this reality.

It remains to be seen if these experiments in urban renewal will be deemed successful.  In 40 years how will we view the South Waterfront?  How do we view South Auditorium district today?  I look at this Corbusian design and wonder only what used to be there.  I doubt that many people will lament the loss of empty warehouses and an abandoned railyard, but I also have serious concerns whether the standard alternative is providing this city with the heart and soul, the sense if identity, that it seems to be so desperately seeking.



  1. daveyjones said,

    in san diego its the “gasLAMP” district.

    that is all.

  2. JB said,

    Well, google shows signs of fallability…

  3. W said,

    Walmart didn’t kill Market St, the mall did. That and the fact that no one lives downtown anymore, unless you’re poor or exceedingly rich living in one of the mansions on Julianna. Box stores pose no threat to true urban environments, and to non-urbans, hey, this ain’t Mayberry.

    You motor boatin’ son of bitch.


  4. JB said,

    I was referring to the proverbial Market Street, not any one in particular. But you are right, in Parkersburg the mall killed downtown retail. I wasn’t arguing otherwise.

    Box stores pose no threat to true urban environments because by they do not exist in true urban environments. If you have a 12 acre parking lot and a half mile from the property line to the front door, that is by definition a suburban style development. Grand Central Ave doesn’t even have sidewalks–I would hardly call that urban.

  5. tittymack said,

    wah, wah, wah!!!
    you’re complaining that your city is covered by only one inch of gold plating instead of two!

  6. JB said,

    Gold plating is not always a good thing. However, I once made the same argument in a letter to a local newspaper when they were bitching about Trimet.

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