How the Car Killed Architecture (and How We Can Bring It Back)

Jack_Benoit

Civil Engineering Student
Feb 10, 2017
Green Building Service Provider - How the Car Killed Architecture (and How We Can Bring It Back)
The purpose of architecture is to shape and gently guide one’s path through life. Through its aesthetics, form, and scale, architecture informs our daily interactions and experiences. However to accomplish this, architecture has to be tangible and unavoidable. With the advent of the automobile, the implementation of architecture permanently changed, allowing people to glide through spaces they previously would have been forced to interact with. The physical restrictions imposed by driving, including the necessity to follow prescribed roads, the blocking out of sensory information, and a speed of the travel that does not allow for architectural appreciation, all served to break apart the fabric of the American Downtown. It is now up to the architects and urban planners of today to reject these auto-focused environments through architectural and infrastructure design to return to something more human.
 
Since people first began to gather together in large numbers, cities have been centers of innovation, culture, commerce, and transportation. In cities, these factors were able to develop exponentially, growth being enhanced by the sheer density and increased rate of exchange that was only found behind city walls. 
 
In these early cities, everything that a person required could be found within an easily walkable radius. As there were no automobiles and horse travel was reserved for the wealthy, every amenity had to be located within the boundary of these small areas. This led to a density and diversity of functions, with commercial and residential spaces sharing the same urban footprint. This density is still evident in the older sections of many European cities, which also happen to be some of the most heavily traveled destinations in the world. There is something about their design, characteristics of which include narrow, winding streets, open plazas, and several story tall buildings, that is enticing on some universal level to all people. 
 
Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City, presents one ecological explanation for these design aspects. Before cities developed, primal humans chose to gather on the liminal regions between some barrier, such as a forest or mountain range, and larger more open spaces. It seems that they needed both the safety that the enclosure provided, and the expansive view offered by the plains. It is clear to see how this theme is realized in European cities, with their juxtaposition of longer boulevards and tighter allies, and their heavy use of indoor-outdoor spaces such as porches, verandas, and colonnades (1). These architectural elements combine to provide both the intimacy and the openness that humans need in their built environments. While there are certainly some exceptions to the rule, American cities tend to focus more on the openness than the intimacy, and this is mainly due to the characteristically American dependence on automobiles.
 
In relating American street culture to that of European cities, author James Howard Kunstler states that “ [Americans] don’t have the one thousand year old cathedral plazas and market squares of older cultures,” instead replacing them with “the national automobile slum.” (2)  While slum may be a melodramatic word to use for describing the state of American architecture, it is not too far from the reality.
 
On initial inspection, the conjured image of a quintessential American strip mall will not cause any immediate distress. There is plenty of green space, and the buildings seem new and relatively well maintained. On further examination however, it is clear to see the location’s failings as a meaningful urban space. First of all, the boundary between commercial and residential life is jarring. In visually pleasing cities such as Paris, the architecture of shops closely matches that of the homes, and the two realms share space and can interact with one another. In this American example, there is no such interaction available. Other elements of planning are to fault, but it must certainly be noted that the presence of the vast and empty expanse of the parking lot and the wide boulevards are what most clearly partition the space. 
 
These auto-dominated elements of infrastructure directly hurt the architecture of American strips, or more specifically they negate
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Jack_Benoit // Civil Engineering Student

Currently a junior student at Tufts University, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. I am also pursuing minors in Architectural Studies and Engineering Management. My other interests affordable housing, green architecture, and urban planning.

 
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