Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Power to Inspire

from my journal...

I spent part of my last Sunday giving impromptu tours of MIT and Harvard University to some traveling companions. I went to college in New Hampshire and Boston was a big part of my life for several years. After those years I would occasionally return during the school year with my students for school tours. Something I always try to work into my speaking about any great school is a note about architecture.

So many of us live in “NoPlaces” (a word that I first encountered in James Howard Kuntsler’s writings in 2000). These NoPlaces prominently feature suburban sprawl, large main streets dominated by fry pits, massive stores, and oil change places. This situation, punctuated by nature trails and “good schools” passes for what we consider quality of life these days.

But man is not nourished by bread alone. Nor by tract housing nor by Wal-Marts nor by convenient freeway access. We so often ignore that we have built tenuous existences tied to things that are anything but certainties. I took a required communications course this summer and one of my classmates lived out by Gardner – a minimum 30 minute one-way drive. He then had the gall to complain about gas prices. Humans allegedly are the only creatures possessing sentience, so unlike the animals, we can make conscious choices. The monarch butterfly is genetically predisposed to eat milkweed. The milkweed nourishes it and makes it taste terrible to predators. If the milkweed goes, so too goes the monarch butterfly. If gas prices go up, and you’ve predicated your work/life relationship on the existence of a commodity which – even if you don’t subscribe to the notion of peak oil – is rapidly, and completely out of our control, spiking in price, then you completely forfeit the right to complain about it.

I made this point to him. But I couldn’t buy a house then, he argued. Then, I countered, maybe that’s a sign it’s not the time to buy a house. To buy a house in the “drive till you qualify” mindset is a recipe that has continued to have repercussions, not just domestically behind the irresponsible federal bailouts of Fannie/Freddie, and (can you still remember?) Bear Stearns, but internationally as InBev, a Belgian beverage conglomerate, took advantage of the plunging dollar to buy Adheuser-Busch “on sale” with Euros against dollars. It is laughable to hear Americans whine and complain about such things – things they created (debt spending), attitudes that they’ve fostered (laissez-faire capitalism), and complacency that they have drunk deeply of (America always has been, currently is, and always will be, unsurpassed as a world power).

Is it our youth that makes us feel so invincible? Can a country less than 300 years old intelligently contemplate the rise and fall of nations? Ironically, I’m possessed of enough American optimism to believe that we can. If we can stop to think deeply.

And that brings us back to standing in front of John Harvard’s statue last Sunday. “Look around,” I said. “No matter what kind of student you are, these buildings, these architectural reminders that something is greater and older than we are, subconsciously inspire.” So often when I’m driving around Johnson County (and there are plenty of other places outside of JoCo that have these, so I’m not trying to single us out) to high schools I’ll notice that many of the schools resemble jails. It’s a small wonder to me that so many of my students are able to achieve and self-inspire when the buildings they go to school in could easily be used as DMVs or as recycling centers or as anything.

Buildings, like everything in our lives, have purposes. No one would mistake a bedroom for a kitchen or a living room for a pantry, but one could easily, simply from gazing at the exterior of many of our public schools, mistake a high school for a massive governmental building. Indeed – a lot of our public buildings are prettier (e.g. the county seat in Olathe, Leawood City Hall, Overland Park City Hall). Buildings have purposes, and when they are grouped together as our cities and towns, our spaces should have purposes. Boston has elements of this public consciousness:

1) Mass transportation that enables everyone, including the poor, disabled, children and the elderly, to participate in civic life by servicing the most traveled corridors.
2) Public spaces like Boston Common that serve the purpose of spacing buildings, creating a public free area, and to provide greenery in the midst of brick and mortar and stone and wood.
3) Housing that is sensible and isn’t predicated on the outrageous notion that everyone in America wants a white picket fence and a yard – an unsustainable dream that counts its success in housing starts – a number that in its sheer gross proclaims: “we are unable to live how thousands of years of humans have before us, for we require castles unto ourselves, no matter what income level we live at.”
4) Zoning that believes that having a business does not entitle you to have large, obnoxious, ugly signage.

Our communities are what we’ve let them become, and until we reverse that trend, those of us who believe that the situations and buildings in which we live and work should be reflections of eternal and sustainable truths that aren’t predicated on pressed sawdust, cheap fossil fuels, and not speaking to your neighbors will have the duty to reform our communities or to move to ones which are more sustainable and responsible.

Humans are better than that, but as a recently domesticated species, we are rapidly forgetting. Besieged by a government that pulls off the doublespeak that it has to take our rights to keep us free and that we can save private institutions by inflating the public currency of millions and that a war against a word can be fought for 100 years, if necessary, we, numb, reach for remotes, beer, playstation controllers, ipods, and anything else of utter insignificance that keeps us from the horror of being alone with our thoughts, our world, and our accountability.

Good night. And good luck.

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