What’s an architect doing writing about cars, anyway?
I always get indignant e-mails asking me this whenever I criticize some aspect of our autocentric society — whether it’s our parking-obsessed city planning, our mania for fruitless road widening and freeway building, or our laughably primitive traffic control systems.
The answer is simple. We inhabit an era — a very fleeting one, in historical terms — that’s all but predicated on the automobile. Hence, architecture and cars are as inextricably linked for modern builders as architecture and defense were for the castle builders of the Middle Ages. You simply can’t design on an urban scale without cars being an integral and often overriding element of what you’re planning.
To see how inseparable the automobile is from contemporary design, stroll down most any suburban street, where the most prominent design feature will be a phalanx of garage doors in all shapes and sizes. Or take a look at your typical shopping mall — an inward-looking huddle of buildings adrift in a vast sea of parking spaces. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.
Municipal zoning codes have institutionalized the fact that cars rule the land, because parking requirements quite often dictate all other aspects of a project. There are exceptions, of course. A few audaciously forward-looking cities have actually made their downtowns less car-friendly in order to encourage other kinds of locomotion, including — gasp! — people using their own two feet. Yet for the most part, city planners have meekly and uncritically knuckled under to the assumed primacy of the automobile.
That’s a pity, because cars in their present form are no more a permanent fixture of our built environment than were the oxcart, the chariot, or the horse and buggy. We happen to live in the historical apogee of the internal-combustion automobile, but even the smallest degree of historical perspective makes plain that it’s merely a temporary visitor — and an increasingly troublesome one — on planet Earth.
Now, for those staunch car defenders getting ready to fire off e-mails calling me a deluded idealist, a car hater or a clueless academic — don’t bother. The fact is I’ve been an incurable gearhead since childhood. I can still happily spend a long evening jabbering about cam grinds and axle ratios with my car-crazy buddies, and I still own a number of Detroit’s most venerable old gas guzzlers in honor of a grand old era that’s now passed into history. If anything, though, this personal obsession makes it all the more obvious to me that our autocentric society, and the vast traffic and petroleum supply infrastructure that goes along with it, will one day be no more than a curiosity to future historians.
What does that mean for us today? For one thing, it suggests we shouldn’t regard our cars — not to speak of the oil they run on — as the be-all and end-all of American society. We should also recognize that history has a way of casually demolishing institutions that seem impregnable, and the internal combustion automobile is surely one of these. Something better, simpler and kinder to the earth is no doubt on the way, assuming that we’re smart enough to welcome it.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.