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The Nexus of Politics and Design

October 8, 2010

On Wednesday the New York Times published an article about voter disgust with Washington and the potential for a third consecutive turnover of power in Congress, titled “Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues.”

The article goes into great detail about a group of three consultants doing unpaid voter research, finding out what issues are at the core of why independent voters have been so fickle during the past 20 years through today. Their method is rather creative: sit a small group of voters down in a comfortable environment, such as one of the subjects’ living rooms, and have them come up with their own idealized countries and compare them to the one they currently live in.  Not surprisingly, for anyone paying attention to the state of the world, their flip-flopping isn’t really about the issues that politicians have been scrambling to define themselves on. What they are worried about is the breakdown of civil society.

The voters cite things like an increasing number of angry drivers, the disappearance of common courtesy, and the hectic pace of modern life. All these things are symptoms of something architects have played a part in for the past 60 years: the modern physical designed environment.

The current structure of most of our lives revolves around the structure of our cities. We live in bedroom houses, drive for potentially hours each way to work, and hardly interact with the world outside of those two places on any given day. You don’t even have to live in the suburbs to experience American anonymity. Housing tastes have led to the ability to choose to live with as little contact with others as you want, no matter where you live. You have the choice of not being forced into daily personal contact with other people.

Architects and urban designers were the enablers of this trend toward seclusion, with land values and the public’s tastes after the Second World War being the driving forces. The breakdown of civil society was a side-effect that no one realized was hiding within their automobiles and Cape Cod houses.

Comparing modern America with modern Europe, the picture is vastly different. Europeans still interact on a daily basis in a way that gives one the feeling of stepping back into pre-1950s America. The lack of available space in Europe that for hundreds of years was viewed as its greatest detractor instead forces people from all walks of life into daily close encounters. Public transportation is still the way most people get around. You’re likely to buy coffee in the morning from your neighbor and sit next to another neighbor (who runs the local bakery) on the train. By contrast, in modern America the fences between yards are like the space between universes.

Architects are currently poised to be the saviors of civil society. With sustainability becoming an ever more popular trend, and more people wanting to live in walkable neighborhoods and urban centers, the desire for change is finally present. Not to a new way of doing things, but ironically back to the way things used to be.

The monkey wrench in the process, though, is money. Private investment alone will not be enough to heal the wounds to the American landscape caused by the forces of the private market over the past 60 years. The result of those wounds, an insecure public willing to bolt from whoever holds power, stands to block the healing. A national government paralyzed by never-ending power shifts will never be coordinated enough to spend the money that repairing the fabric of the city will require.

Architects should take this as a warning. We have a duty as PR representatives of this change to a kinder world to stay aware of the outside forces affecting design. We must do everything we can to educate the public about what must be done to achieve the “ideal country” they desire. America stands at a tipping point: either intelligent design will restore civil society, or the country will slowly be taken to a fear-stalked place where design becomes an irrelevant practice devoid of the power to change anything.

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