3.06.2009

The Living...The Built...The McDonald's Parking Lot


You may not agree with TS Eliot’s statement that every age gets the art it deserves, but it’s hard to argue that we don’t—to some extent—get the cities we deserve. In fact, a city may be human culture’s most perfect expression of collective will, a direct and tangible product of millions of individual decisions multiplied by thousands of days. Certain forces, people and institutions tend to exert disproportionate influence on the way cities evolve, but by and large the masses make the cities, and without all those people cities would not even be cities.

Human culture produces cities, and cities in turn influence those cultures. Eliot thought the same about art, and art’s cultural role is more limited than that of cities. Does this mean that subpar cities are created by subpar cultures, and can one expect crappy cities to foster even crappier human relations in their streets and buildings? Are planners, architects and other creators of the built environment to blame for the desolation of downtown Detroit or for me not knowing my neighbors?

Probably not. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof made this unexpected yet intuitive point in his 1987 commencement address to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design:

“Cities are amalgams of the living and the built, always tidying up, never finished. Their agenda is colossally overburdened, its charge near impossible to rein in. There is no way in which design alone will breathe life into a dying enterprise, any more than a vibrant sense of community can be attributed in earnest to the act of design.”

Kostof’s speech—at least that part of it—amounts to a call for more piazzas. That is, more free spaces where human activity can run its course, whatever that turns out to be. The life and energy teeming within cities is bound to find its own way, perhaps guided and elevated by the Burnhams, the Olmsteds and the Koolhaases but never steered by them.

The most vibrant public space near where I live happens to be the neighborhood McDonald’s. Although there’s a beautiful, expansive park only two blocks away, a large group of elderly gentlemen are congregating in that McDonald’s from morning until evening on any given day of the week, usually having nothing more than a coffee. During the summer, they bring their own chairs and hang out in the parking lot. The place is full of people every time I pass by. I opt for the big park when I want to get out of the house, but for some variety of reasons many others find the Golden Arches to be a suitable piazza of sorts. I can tell you this much: They aren't there for the food.

Many view McDonald’s (and parking lots) as the worst American culture has to offer, and more than a few planners would raze every McDonald’s in sight given the opportunity. Builders and planners can only build and plan, though. They can’t actually add the people or dictate the uses of their creations. Ultimately, I think, we do get the cities we deserve because, to a great extent, we are those cities.


(Photo from Flickr user brtsergio.)

3 comments:

Laith Wark said...

"....a city may be human culture’s most perfect expression of collective will, a direct and tangible product of millions of individual decisions multiplied by thousands of days. Certain forces, people and institutions tend to exert disproportionate influence on the way cities evolve, but by and large the masses make the cities..."

An apt summary of the "urban design" process.

Lynn Stevens said...

Perhaps the term "environmental design" would be more palatable. I can't see much of anything in the photo(s), but my first thought was perhaps the McDonald's offers a sense of enclosure your park does not. There are also some male/female differences in preferred environments.

Then we get back to the "product of millions of individual (and govt/corporate) decisions...."

Drew Austin said...

Thanks for the comments.

Just to clarify, the photo I included does not depict the park or the McDonald's that I mention in my post.