Inventing American Reality

1.

In recent years a shift has taken place in the way we perceive reality, a shift so pervasive that it has radically altered basic assumptions about art and life. The shift is profound; it goes beyond the debate over modernism and postmodernism and it increasingly affects the design of the buildings around us. Some, like myself, believe the shift mutilates and sells short what it pretends to elevate and embrace. It has instantly recognizable characteristics—an emphasis on surface gloss, on pastiche, on the use of familiar but bowdlerized elements from the history of design, on tenuous symbolism and synthetically created environments, a detachment from the problems and processes through which contemporary life and creative necessity are actively engaged. These attributes provide a dubious replacement for the rigorous and elegant synthesis of expression and utility that has always defined and enriched the best of the building art. This change in vision and values has brought irreversible changes in the understanding and practice of architecture today. The art of architecture as packaging or play-acting is a notion whose time, alas, seems to have come.

I do not know just when we lost our sense of reality or interest in it, but at some point it was decided that the evidence of the built world around us was not compelling; that it was possible, permissible, and even desirable to substitute a more agreeable product. Once it was accepted that reality was disposable, its substance could be revised, manipulated, or abandoned. The devaluation of our cities and the structures in them that followed—essentially the abandonment of the richest and most revealing record of the human condition—has spread like a virus, invading and infecting architectural and urban standards in the most basic sense. The replacement of reality with selective fantasy has been led first by the preservation movement and then by a new, successful, and staggeringly profitable American phenomenon: the reinvention of the environment as themed entertainment. The process of substitution probably started in a serious way at Colonial Williamsburg, predating and preparing the way for the new world order of Disney Enterprises. Certainly it was in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg that the studious fudging of facts received its scholarly imprimatur and history and place as themed artifact hit the big time.

Restoration is a difficult and unclear procedure at best, a highly subjective kind of cosmetic surgery that balances life and death. At Williamsburg, a “cut-off date” of 1770 was set; subsequent history was to be amputated, the place frozen in time. Once a “cut-off date” has been chosen for a project, the next step is to “restore it back”—to use preservation-speak. “Restoring it back” means re-creating the place as someone thinks it was, or would like it to have been, at the cut-off date. As practiced in this country since the 1920s and 1930s, these linguistic and conceptual crimes against art and history have achieved complete acceptance and respectability. They have also given a license to destroy. Seven hundred…


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