Sunday, August 20, 2006


I have in the last year or so allowed to lapse my membership in the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There was a distinct reason for this. The Trust expended $6.7 million dollars of its members' contributions for the purchase of a piece of contemporary architecture: a fifty-some year-old house in rural Illinois which sports features that render any resident deficient in privacy, which suffers from condensation problems, and which is aesthetically banal. The tale of it is told in E. Michael Jones' Living Machines. It was of interest to Dr. Jones for the same reason the Trust's director, Richard Moe, fancies it ought to be of interest to him: it was designed by Mies van der Rohe (for a lady physician who by some accounts later concluded she had been taken for a ride financially, and, perhaps, erotically). Mr. Moe offered in announcing the purchase that the Trust had been criticised for being lax in the preservation of gems of contemporary architecture and he aimed to rectify that. However Mr. Moe understands the organization's institutional mission, suckers like me were sending cheques to the Trust every year because we perceived the following: that public and commercial architecture of sufficient age that it embodied a sense of aesthetics was in danger from the common-and-garden workings of the real estate market; that the ordinary workings of that same market were such that old architecture was being replaced with artifacts of inferior aesthetic quality; and that thus we would subvene the haphazard efforts of eelomosynaries to preserve some fragments of heritage in lieu of more reliable means. Niggardly philistine that I am, I shall not be sending any more contributions to the Trust for a good while.

That has not stopped them from sending me copies of their magazine. This is a lesser publication than it was a dozen years ago, but is still satisfactory. I have finally gotten around to reading a critique therein of the New Urbanism written by Sudip Bose and appearing in their September/October 2005 issue. If you find the commercial strips common to suburban townships coarse and find the full assembly of residential and commercial construction a habitat for automobiles bearing human cargo rather than a habitat for man, you might be pleased that the agreeable aspects of city living (foot traffic and proximity to neighbors and local merchants) are being attempted in suburban development after a hiatus of about six decades. Well, Mr. Bose is not impressed with the Kentlands, Maryland, where he used to live. Mr. Bose moved there reluctantly. He got lost jogging shortly after moving in. The neighborhood is too neat, too clean, and too planned. The architectural mix is inauthentic: "All those federal revival houses, with their picket fences...Would residents avoid mingling on the common green if the houses that enclosed it were built, say, of glass and steel?" (Do you know of any neighborhoods constructed of glass and steel townhouses? Neither do I. Neither, I suspect, does Mr. Bose. Might consumer resistance be a reason for that? The sort of resistance the Trust did not display when it bought Mies' hunk-o'-junk?). He continues:

I couldn't help thinking -- naively, I admit -- that the lack of physical imperfection suggested that life inside those clean, neat houses was smooth-edged, too, that husbands who inhabited those spaces didn't cheat on their wives, that children didn't get suspended from school, that four vodka martinis weren't being desperately downed with the evening meal by couples who had nothing to talk about anymore. That's the problem with all this old-timey, feel-good architecture: It offers an illusion, and how can a person feel rooted in or connected to an illusion?

From 17 years of city living, I can assure Mr. Bose that the peeling paint on the facades of the buildings and the cracks on the sidewalks grant one few insights into the marital problems of the residents therein. Mr. Bose offers he would prefer that Kentlands had grown organically like Carbondale, Illinois or Ithaca, New York. Sad to say, the interaction of market forces and local politics has not been generating communities with that sort of morphology. (With our without the tincture of crime and vagrancy that Mr. Bose finds in Ithaca and thinks optimal). The New Urbanism is a practical attempt by planners and developers to give people an alternative to the usual suburban mess. In any case, the paint in the Kentlands will have ample time to peel and the sidewalks ample time to crack in the coming years.

Making the good the enemy of the satisfactory may strike one as contrived (especially when Mr. Bose adds to the bill of particulars a complaint that the developers were unable to dictate to the D.C. transit authority a bus schedule agreeable to him). Toward what end? Well...

I am more convinced, as I prepare to move out of the Kentlands, that the perfect, happy, small American town might never have been, but for our nostalgia and imagination.

Somehow I suspect that the phrase "our nostalgia and imagination" does not, in his mind, truly encompass him or that friend whom he takes around town and who sneers at the place 'cynically'. (Can we call his use the possessive 'inauthentic'?) It refers to his neighbors (who happily live in an 'illusion') or to nameless others in times present or past who lack the sophistication to find the Kentlands distasteful. Nothing is adduced in his article to indicate that his neighbors or the broad strata of the population past and present think or have thought that the consequences of original sin were in abeyance in small towns in New Jersey circa 1925. It is something he chooses to impute to them.

Whatever Mr. Moe or Mr. Bose fancy they're up to, they are doing a dandy job of persuading the more dyspeptic among the Trust's contributors that the mission of same will with their ministrations come to conform to that of educational and cultural institutions generally: a hustle in the service of self-congratulation, complete with the misapplication of seven-figure sums of money.