We can’t do much about the way we look, but we can do plenty to make the world around us look attractive, comforting, inspirational and practical. We spend a whole lot of money on the former and not nearly enough thought on the latter.
I’m no architect, but I know what I like. I know the connection between the sights of our public world and how I feel about it. And, frankly, much of the see-scape around us is no better than plain, and mostly downright ugly.
After being graduated from my high school, an old campus steeped in tradition and with a variety of building styles that were a history lesson in and of themselves, I enrolled at a local community college. Instead of the warmth of a naturally evolving collegial campus, it was – and still is – a field of ugly boxes placed scatter-shot here and there, without much logic or sensitivity. To put it bluntly, it resembled nothing so much as the World’s Largest Home Depot.
From there I transferred to a state university. There, I reached the conclusion that the same fella (or woman) who designed the state prisons had a job moonlighting as an architect for college construction. Dull brick boxes with all the charm of a warehouse. No apparent attention given to placement, style, personality or any of those things that would make you say, “That’s my college! Isn’t it beautiful?”
The same general situation applies to many churches, retail stores and housing projects. Too many are cookie-cutter, slab-sided crank-em-out disappointments which pay no respect to anything but expediency and cost containment.
Before you dismiss my complaint as a plea from an impractical fantasy world, consider this: there’s a dollar-and-cents value to taking a little more care with what we build. Charming, embracing architecture draws crowds to shopping areas. The turrets, towers and ivy walls of a classy-looking college make parents more willing to shell out big money to send Derek or Deanna there.
In too many commercial districts there is a slavish devotion to building stucco boxes set back from the street, with an ocean of parking spaces all around. The end result is that a shopper, after filling up at Costco or Walmart, has to walk a mile – metaphorically – to any other adjacent store, dodging Silverados and Accords. It might be good for one retailer, but doesn’t help create additional economic vitality from consumers who might like to get something other than a 200-roll pack of toilet paper.
In fact, a prettier building – just some color here, and a design element there – could bring in even more customers and more money.
One of the reasons so many Americans like to visit Europe or other areas is that the cities and buildings – even the small ones – have a charm and beauty which we don’t always see in our own living spaces.
All American cities today have numerous – and some would say overly detailed – requirements for constructing new buildings and projects. There have to be X-number of parking spaces, Y-amount of landscaping and Z-quantity of fire extinguishers.
Important, certainly, but wouldn’t it be nice – and make for a nicer world – if the last and most important box to check on the permit application is alongside this question: Is this thing you want to build as ugly as a mud fence?
An honest answer might slow down some builders, but taking a little more time to think about what you’re going to do with something that will probably be there for half a century isn’t a bad idea at all.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears on alternative Wednesdays.