American Anger Is Instigated by The Built Environment
Having looked at thousands of properties across the country over the past decade in my role as a real estate investor, I cannot help but come to a disturbing conclusion: the housing stock in America is dated, uninspired, unhealthy and most likely the root of all this anger in our society.
Amidst all the innovation of our age, technologies for the built environment just haven’t kept up. And most Americans inhabit living spaces that are poorly designed and poorly constructed. In fact, most homes and apartment units are so mediocre they encourage their inhabitants to seek beauty, entertainment and distraction in the digital world. Our addiction to technology is really a result of an urge to escape the dullness and the limitations embodied by our built environment.
This is not true for everyone though. For those fortunate few at the very top of our society, there is at least the possibility for living in an inspiring and uplifting space. An old TV show, The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, would tease ordinary Americans with tantalizing glimpses of life on the other side of the divide. Then, on MTV’s Cribs, we saw more frequently and more clearly what it was like to be a star. Fast forward to today and our exposure to what life is like for the rich is almost all-consuming. From tiny apartments and unnaturally clustered and tight suburban enclaves, we watch members of the Kardashian clan inhabit 10,000 square feet of beautifully designed and furnished space, equipped with sparkling pools and elegantly manicured grounds. Whether we are conscious of it or not, this outside looking in mediascape is not good for us.
I think it is undeniable that one of the largest unmet desires of our consumer society is demand for affordable, high-quality living space. Most Americans essentially just put-up with where they have to live and seek beauty and inspiration in public spaces, nature and in the digital domain. There is a popular phrase voiced in real estate developer circles: “the city is the amenity.” Meaning, in a place like Los Angeles — for example — there are so many beautiful things to see and do, that all developers have to do is provide the most basic, cookie-cutter living space — and consumers won’t care, because they have the city.
Of course, this isn’t true for every developer and architect. In fact, there are many working every day to break this mold. But this is most certainly the dominant trend.
Since we have this remarkable capacity to adapt and survive and even thrive in less than ideal conditions, the tragedy here is more one of lost opportunity and what could have been. In Ursula Le Guin’s beautiful essay Living in a Work of Art, she affirms the vast potential of a beautiful living space:
“Writing this, I wonder if much of my understanding of what a novel ought to be was taught to me, ultimately, by living in that house.”
She pays incredible homage to the Bernard Maybeck home of her childhood by suggesting that its design and construction imprinted in her subconscious the blueprint for her genius as a storyteller. And while she’s not so naïve to suggest that living in such a space is always a sufficient condition for shaping an inspired person, she affirms its potential for doing so:
“It is where I happened.” Invoking Maybeck, she writes that a beautiful living space “will have the same power over the mind as music or poetry or any healthy activity in any kind of human experience.”
If Maybeck and Le Guin are right about this, what does this imply or say about our society — we who are content to build, sell and live in these formulaic and mass-produced spaces? What kind of potential are we leaving on the table? What kind of negative power do these poorly designed and shoddily constructed built environments have on us? The acclaimed and beloved author goes even further discussing the complex relationship between beauty and morality and — without providing any kind of dogmatic proscription — raises a profound point about the built environment:
“Is it not fair to say that every building has a morality, in this sense, and not merely a metaphorical one, in the honesty and the integrity of its design and materials, or the dishonesty expressed in incompetence, incoherence, shoddiness, fakery and snobbery?
This question, and the values it espouses, are at the core of what we are thinking about today and the inspiration for our work.