“The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape” by James Howard Kunstler was a uniquely fascinating study about how technological “progress” and societal “advancements” have destroyed our ability to recognize, appreciate, and plan for quality spaces.
This has been an observation I have been wrestling with for several years now and am often discouraged by the lack of interest fellow citizens share in this area. I became aware of this effect gradually as I was learning to be more observant during University, and was simply incapable of ignoring the blatant displays of ignorance while living in the city. Even now, every day as I drive through Gananda, NY, which in my views stands as the pinnacle that represents the obsolesce and individualism that was the catalyst for Kunstler to write this book and make me physically terrified of the nightmare fuel that is the housing development.
Before I get carried away, let me describe the book; the first six chapters are essentially an entertaining review of every American architectural text studied during an architectural education. With the exception of the progressive vernacular, I could have skipped both Arch. History I and II in favor of this book and barley skipped a beat (exaggeration). The remainder of the books could be briefly, if less persuasively, summed up as a literary attack on cars. Kunstler seems to despise cars and at every turn places the blame for our current housing model squarely on the shoulders of the developing automobile industry and those who stand to have the most to gain from its success. Even as far back as Henry Ford and his production assembly line are not safe from critical review, but Kunstler refrains from pushing too hard in that direction, apparently due to that fact that as Ford grew late in life he was apologetic about his contributions to the degradation of the community lifestyle.
This book gained an additional level of local interest as Kunstler is from Saratoga Springs, NY and uses the town as a blunt case study, often not very flatteringly. He also manages to mention other upstate New York cities, (Rochester, Syracuse, Palmyra) and even some local corporations, (The Pyramid Group, and the Wilmorite Corporation). The local origination of the author makes the lessons in the book a much harder pill to swallow as it is difficult to separate our communities from those discussed. I am unable, in this case, to point to the examples discussed and consider my communities different or exempt, as would potentially be possible if written from the perspective of an individual residing on the west coast or down south.
The primary concerns, as I understand them, is that……as if it were that simple.
There have been many factors that have led us to where we are today and, without exception, every corner of this nation is plighted with poor spaces outlined in this book. A favorite passage that attempts a summation of the evils of our culture follows:
“The tragic thing is that there existed in America a fine heritage of regional home-building traditions, rich with values and meanings, and we threw it all away. Vestigial symbols of that tradition remain – the screw-on plastic shutters, fanlights with pop-in mullions, vinyl clapboards, the fakey front portico too narrow to put a chair on – but the building culture from which these details derive is as lost as the music of the Aztecs.”
The most frightening part is that this book was written in 1993 and more than 15 years later the mistakes we were making are only amplified and suburbia continues to grow. A pure example of this is the “master-planned” community of Gananda, NY. For those unfamiliar, Gananda is a community development east of Rochester in which people just want to live. The community is organized along a 4-mile collection road without a single house on it. Along the collection road are a number of housing developments and the backs of houses and metal storage sheds, all facing away from the road. The cohesion within the community is provided by Gananda Central School, but few children can walk or ride their bikes as nearly every home in the district is forced onto this busy collection road to get from their houses to the school. There are no commercial zones or shopping centers, just a handful of conveniences catering to the automobile as an individual (gas station, car wash, drive through ATM) and I hear rumors of a pizza place but have never actually seen it. I am sure that certain residents of this developed community would have the capacity to provide some reasoning for the existence of such a dysfunctional community environment, but as it stands now I turn down the radio volume and get involuntary somber as my daily commute takes me though the unnatural place.
As a final thought, it would be interesting to see how the tone of this book would be different if written during or after the financial fiasco of recent years. Perhaps Kunstler will publish a follow-up titled, “I Told You So”.