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Lessons From Architecture

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Looking at the world, how many examples of dishonesty can you see? It shouldn’t be hard. We run on it like gasoline.

I was struck by it yesterday in a very strange way: architecture.

This seems like a weird thing to get into a fuss over. I was in geography class and for some reason the professor found it good class material to go through pictures of Dallas, Texas and examine why things were the way they were. It makes for interesting discussion, even if it really has nothing much to do with the class.

For the rest of the class, I was struck by dishonesty in even the way things were built. Looking at architecture, infrastructure, or any other thing people build, you can tell a lot about the values of the people who live or work around these buildings.

The first slide showed a Google Earth image of downtown Dallas, boxed in by highways. The highways, the professor explained, were constructed in the late 50s and early 60s as a way to segregate poor, black neighborhoods from the mostly white downtown. This infrastructure development actually caused white people to pour out of the city into the newly developing suburbs. Anyone who has heard of “white flight” is familiar with the concept I’ve just described.

The case of the highways helped me realize that, as a 21-year-old, I’m blind to the fact that much of our infrastructure was constructed in a way to enforce segregation. Perhaps this continues to this day, unbeknownst to the average observer.

In my own burg of Oklahoma City, once you cross south of the highway rimming the southern part of downtown, you enter a poorer minority district that continues until the loop, where suburbia begins. Is this how most large cities are constructed?

When the next picture comes onto the screen, it shows a windmill standing in front of a suburban housing district within sight of Dallas’s skyline. The windmill was built to suggest the peace and tranquility of the country in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

Obviously, this isn’t the country. People are still willing to believe it is, because it is a very successful housing district in the Dallas area. The idea of fakeness is obviously appealing. To me, it’s not as though people are fake themselves – they just prefer comfort, even if it means accepting a lie.

The next picture shows Plano, a wealthy suburb of Dallas, and a Wal-Mart that was built with a country motif. A girl in class, who said she lived in Plano, said she always shopped there, even though it was not the closest Wal-Mart. The reason was that she felt safer there.

The “poor” Wal-Mart, she explained, was actually closer to her home, but that was where minorities mostly shopped. It wasn’t as well lit, it was more run-down, and the selection wasn’t as large. The “rich” Wal-Mart had a wine store when you walked into the entrance, complete with hundred dollar bottles of vintage wine from all around the world.

In the case of the highways, it was our government that separated people according to racial lines. In the case of the Wal-Mart, the separation was made by socioeconomic positions. This doesn’t surprise me. George Carlin taught me long ago that rich, powerful people like poor, weak people to fight each other so they can go on making money while staying in power. That statement seems a bit broad, but in the case of the highways and the Wal-Mart, one can see it in action.

The professor next shows a picture of an abandoned parking lot of what used to be Bigtown – the first indoor, air-conditioned shopping mall in the world. It was put to death by the giant Northpark shopping mall. Things come and things go. Where the Bigtown building once stood now only grows a clump of weeds. Bigtown’s memory is now as faded as the letters on its sign, which once proclaimed it to be the greatest shopping center in the world.

Efforts are often made to preserve historical icons such as Bigtown, but in the march of what we deem as “progress,” many are left to die and be built over. Some things, I guess, aren’t worth saving.

A picture of a mega-church flicks onto the screen. I thought at first it was a mall, but it shows a large atrium that loops around a gigantic “worship center” with stores lining the outside. Didn’t Jesus get pretty mad when people sold things in the Great Temple?

It actually reminded me of a church in Oklahoma City I went to that has a Starbucks. Well, they brew Starbucks, advertise the fact they do, and use their corporate slogans, which to me is still a dangerous line to tread.

The mall-like atmosphere of the mega-church suggests that Christianity is a spiritual buffet on which people selfishly gorge ourselves once a week without ever thinking to change the world outside the church walls.

Next comes the picture of a courthouse built in 2000, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. Its Corinthian columns, red brick, and Tudor roof suggests 19th century at best. You’d think by the 21st century we would have found something other than Greek columns, Victorian turrets, and steep-sloped Tudor roofs to emulate. In fact, we should have our own architecture that people from the future copy to reminisce on better times.

Do we really hate our era so much that we nostalgically look back to the 19th century as a simpler time, or to the Greeks for their Golden Age? Are we really content to not change ourselves to reflect those ideals, or is it only the idea that appeals to us?

A row of Boston townhouses comes onto the screen. They were built recently where the city of Dallas ends and suburbia begins, crowding each other side-by-side down a narrow, one-way street. I thought Texans were supposed to like their space! It is set in a subdivision amid trendy shops that make it look more like Disney World than a city. Brand names appear above the individual shops – large restaurant chains made to look like mom and pop stores.

The busy-as-a-beehive street is evidence that people eat up the Disney World image. A subdivision like this set amid Dallas, Texas, seems further evidence that people want to live anywhere but where they actually live.

The next picture shows a large house in an historical neighborhood. The professor explains that rich people buy lots in these historical neighborhoods, razing their “small” 2,000-square foot house to the ground. They are then built over with 4-5,000-square foot behemoths that make a mockery of everything the neighborhood once stood for, much to the chagrin of poorer neighbors.

Next comes the picture of the oldest building in downtown, built in 1911. Everything else has been lost to development. More troubling is that white and black people still don’t live side by side. Martin Luther King’s dream has yet to be realized even in the way our infrastructure is organized.

People desire simplicity and peace in their hectic lives. Yet they think part of the solution comes in settling for the lies offered by windmills, candy-coated Wal-Marts, and a commute from suburbia to downtown which takes half a tank in their fuel-inefficient SUVs. Meanwhile, the poor suffer in the decaying city-center.

These architectural and infrastructural problems are not Dallas’s alone. They are a common story across the metropolises of America. Racism, urban decay, and nostalgia are common themes when looking at present-day architecture and infrastructure.

Another theme I find is the fragmentary nature of many of our lives. Most of our lives are so diversified, contemporary, and fragmentary that it may be common for us to spend less than 30 minutes with any one person on any given day. It is much more difficult to spend time with family and friends in the modern era than it was a hundred years ago. We are exposed to more new ideas and situations in a day than people back then were in a week, or even a month. This lifestyle is perpetuated by the way our very infrastructure is built. It’s not that we don’t spend time with each other – it’s just a lot harder to.

I understand there is no perfect city or perfect architecture. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Greek columns or any other historical motif. It just seems wrong to use those things to make ourselves believe we embrace values those motifs evoke when we hypocritically do otherwise.

I think it is wrong, however, to use highways to segregate poor minorities from scared white people. It is not progress, and never will be, even if it is good for lining rich, white guys’ pockets. It also seems wrong to think the world is a Disney Land by choosing to live in a neighborhood that evokes that theme.

Architecture is probably a weird thing to get under my skin, but I think it also reflects a greater theme: humans excel at dishonesty, so much so that it has crept into something seemingly neutral, like architecture. It goes to show the depth of lies that perpetuate or society. Are we so dishonest that we cannot even build something without lying in some way?

I’m not trying to persuade anyone to agree with everything I say. I will consider this piece a success if people start thinking about architecture differently. When you see your state capitol modeled after Greek columns and Washington, D.C., remember the corruption that festers within its pure, marble halls. When you see that large mansion, remember the poor that often suffered to make it so. When you go to the mall, remember the gospel of consumerism that tells people they will be happy if they buy one more thing.

Perhaps this might seem extreme, maybe even communistic. I’m not communistic, but it would be nice if there were a little less hypocrisy in our society and our architecture.

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About Kyle West

  • Just one small comment on the WHERE the highway systems were located. All infrastructure costs money. Those highways were not constructed with keeping the black man down in mind, certainly not in Oklahoma, but were constructed in the areas surrounding the most populated areas where it was cheapest. Think about it, logic tells you that they weren’t going to raze the areas that drew the most revenue. It had not one thing to do with race, it had to do with the tax money that could be continued by ignoring the more affluent areas. That isn’t racism, but classism. And your prof is perpetuating that very same concept by trying to focus your attention on the non-existent problem of race in that construction. Government’s sole purpose is just like our own, to ensure its survival. You certainly wouldn’t look for Soonertown to let 35 go right through the campus.

    Yes, I am an architect. And I certainly appreciate your views, just do not let someone else tell you what to think or simply accept what they say as gospel truth. You are questioning your environment and that is a good thing. Don’t blindly accept the spoon fed racist interpretation of classism that you were given in class today. But do realize that classism is just as much discrimination as racism is.

    As far as the architecture is concerned, clients want buildings to fit the aesthetic of their function. You want to be able to SEE that the building is a church without a flashing sign. Schools look a certain way, banks as well. Dormitories, too.

    As far as box stores or malls are concerned, their life cycle is at maximum seven years. Beyond that time frame, profitability drops, that is why the Wal-Mart builds a new store in the same area about every five years or so.

    Great post by the way, good luck in your studies, but architecture is a great field, hope you study it more, it does tend to show history pretty well if you look closely. If you would like to ask any questions or correspond, I welcome that wholeheartedly.

  • Kyle

    Wow, good points. I should’ve realized it wasn’t new but I guess being a youngin’ most everything is new to me.

  • Erin, elementary Art teacher, from Wichita, KS

    My first thought is to defend the architects as they work simply at the will of their client. Next, DUH! Of course architecture effects, divides, defines class, neighborhoods, economic barrierers and differences. A basic course in Art and psychology would explain all of this. Just look at graphics. Target is successful and bold because they use red and because they lay out their store nicely; it’s pretty and open. It makes me smile every time I walk in. Wal-Mart is cheap because they use a cheap, dirty blue. Their parking lots are angled and hard to maneuver adn their aisles are no better. I leave Wal-Mart feeling like I need to wipe off all the yucky Wal-Martness. Big Lots uses orange and brown (not seen as expensive colors) and lays out their store sloppily, because they can..everything is cheap and in bulk, nothing special. Architecture is no different than that. People don’t trust modern looking buildings for their banks because it seems too, well, modern and possibly shady. Same for courthouses. Even recently-built courthouses have to be careful. With modern accents they’re still pretty traditional. Fast-track architecture and strip malls do not say, “Trust me! Spend time in this store!” It says, “Run in here fast and don’t expect what you buy here to last!” Why do more affluent neighborhoods NOT sport pawn shops or payday loan buildings and poor neighborhoods have them in abundance?

    This sweet 21-year-old isn’t saying or realizing anything new, as his professor already showed. He/she is simply starting to notice the painfully obvious divisions that art and architecture can allow, but not always at the intention or fault of the artist themselves.

    Oh, the lessons this poor kid will continue to learn…..