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Pragmatics, efficiency, metrics – Metropolis. Each generally soul-killing.

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What’s on your top-10 list of threats to modern civilization? Climate change; overpopulation; nuclear war; environmental degradation; religious fundamentalism; unchecked consumerism; unintended technological consequences; global pandemics; GMOs; the Kardashian obsession?

Balderdash! How about the modern built environment! Surprised? I am not joking nor entirely delusional. As preposterous as it may sound, I am about to make a case that IT – our built environment – constitutes the freeway for us becoming an archeological footnote in some far away world.

We in the U.S. are now living through the 3rd generation that has grown up in the soulless landscape of sprawl capitalism, epitomized by 7-11s, McDs, parking lots and flattened ugliness in general – a condition that occasionally yields a snide remark from some elitist intellectual but otherwise is understood as the face of progress, an expression of freedom – the free market system at work.

The problem is not just about visual ugliness and resource wastefulness. Our constant immersion in this flat, dystopian landscape discourages the muses from stirring within us. We humans need our muses, without whom we are just oxygen burners and clock watchers. Our culture emphasizes “building wealth,” not “building place” – self-service over community life. Pragmatics, efficiency, metrics – Metropolis. Each generally soul-killing.

Because we humans, until very recently, have been so intimately associated with the places we have lived and depended upon, the profoundness of a uniquely tuned environment still resides in our being. Since the industrial revolution and particularly since the end of World War Two, we have been sold a new vision of architecture, centered on convenience, comfort and the car (all subsets of a Randian worldview). This vision erodes our connection to the land and it is the land from which we originally drew, and still do ultimately, our vitality and viability. Losing this connection has set us adrift in a placeless world in which no amount of technological marvels can satisfy us.

Essentially, it’s about the developmental aspect of humans and how our new built environment routinely and insidiously impedes the development of healthy sensibilities. Anyone who has spent time in an old, non-tourist town of Europe can appreciate the robustness of being in such a life-infused place. Our common daily experience in the modern American anywhere is anything but robust. We live in un-places, built of cheap materials, ignorant of scale and proportion, executed with little care, imbued with no trace of the human hand and lacking in a sense of context – which can only create humans of similar character. That is to say that humans implicitly absorb the character of their surroundings. Ugly, thoughtless, depressing surroundings do not encourage beautiful, creative, vigorous people – people with soul and spirit.

If we follow the notion that a person’s immediate physical context can positively or negatively affect that individual and extend it to the last sixty years, asking whether our increasingly car-oriented, amorphous built-environments are affecting our civilization as a whole … if so, we should be worried — especially when we combine this deteriorating effect with the hollow promises of virtualism.

The effects of our atonal built environment eludes the study-obsessed, data-focused analytics on which we depend for informing us of current and future reality. Another factor in obscuring the significance of the built environment’s influence is the time frame. While not geologic, it is long — possibly lasting centuries. Similar to how our religious differences have taken centuries to reach seemingly total intractability, this ailing built environment condition will reveal itself slowly – and by the time we grasp it, will be far too unmanageable to change.

My point is this: even if we solve climate change, over-population; nuclear war; environmental degradation etc. but do not recognize the need for a nurturing built environment and continue down our present path of commodity architecture – development for the sake of a “pro-forma” ($) first and foremost – we may as well be dead. Maybe it helps to think in terms of the Quality of Life versus the Standard of Living dilemma. Evolving into sedentary, narcissistic, ill-informed, soulless consumers will, regardless of our standard of living or the characteristics of the places we now consider normal, make all of the other potential achievements mostly pointless because we will have lost the essential spiritual thread of our human heritage – our connection to place. After we make such soulless places, even Katrinas cannot achieve reset – buildings gone, yes, but the deadly, unnatural infrastructure lingers. We have created a multi-generational illness (like smoking) in our built environment but have yet to recognize the depth of its malignancy.

— Bill Beard is an Architect in Grand Junction, Colorado.

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