Most of us don’t attach much importance to the mundane architectural settings of our everyday lives. We go in and out of supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations without a second thought, perhaps because we understand these places so well that they seem merely a part of our natural surroundings. It’s necessary to think back to childhood to recall what it was like when such ordinary places were new and strange. Iremember my first schoolroom, with its imposing hierarchy of many little desks and one big, important desk. Or the first time I was taken to a museum, with its succession of large, silent rooms filled with labeled glass cases. Or the first, truly strange experience of a movie theater:sitting alone, in a crowd, in the dark. As children, we explore these unknown, exotic places like anthropologists in a new world, without the encumbrance of foreknowledge; we are obliged to decipher for ourselves the meanings of the new place, and to find our own place in it.
As adults we may feel more or less at home more or less everywhere. This is not just a question of habit. I don’t mean that there aren’t locales that appear exotic—but it’s rare that we find ourselves in places that are truly incomprehensible. This is not just because buildings fall into recognizable types (a concert hall designed by Frank Gehry is still a concert hall, the relationship between performers and audience follows a well-understood convention) but also because television and movies have brought us in contact with so many places we would never ordinarily visit: prisons, morgues, missile silos. Last summer I toured a World War II submarine moored alongside San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf; it was the first time I had ever been on board such a vessel, but thanks to Lloyd Bridges’s Sea Hunt and many submarine movies, the confined, mechanical interior felt, if not exactly familiar, at least not unfamiliar. Similarly, when I was obliged to go to a hospital, a place I had not been in for thirty years but had seen innumerable times on television, the layout of the long corridors flanked by dreary wards, and the curious hospital atmosphere that combines boredom and urgency, personal attention and impersonal neglect, felt quite normal, and I think Iwould have been surprised had it been otherwise.
So Ididn’t expect to come upon a new kind of place, that is, a place that demanded unknown rules of behavior, not twenty miles from my house, and certainly not in a shopping mall. I think this encounter happened about fifteen years ago. I was walking through the mall, which had recently opened, when Icame upon a large, open area with many tables at which people sat eating. There were no waiters visible, and the food appeared to come from a series of take-out counters where young people served food that could be taken away on trays, cafeteria-style. The counters were located in a ring on the periphery of the open area, and to judge from the colorful overhead signs there was a wide variety of different kinds of food:Chinese, Tex-Mex, pizza, Southern fried chicken. Ilined up at one of the counters, ordered my food, paid, and then holding my loaded tray I realized that I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had been in fast-food restaurants before, of course, but this was different. Here, the tables all looked the same. I wasn’t sure if I was expected to sit opposite the kiosk from which I had just picked up my souvlaki and Coke, or anywhere at all.
I had just stumbled on a “food court.” (The name was then unfamiliar to me, which was one of the sources of my confusion; knowing the name of a space is a big part of learning to recognize and use it.) The food court is an unusual eating place. A conventional restaurant is a highly stylized environment; we are called customers but as the hostess shows us to our table we really feel like guests in someone else’s house. The atmosphere of a cafeteria, on the other hand, is different:uniform, regimented like an industrial assembly line, reflecting its mess-hall and refectory roots. The experience of a food court is neither of these. It doesn’t feel either domestic or institutional. Since it’s not clearly set apart from the surrounding mall and the crowds of strolling shoppers, it has something of the feel of the sidewalk café, except that there are no waiters, and no need to buy anything. In a sense, it’s like picnicking on a park bench.
I must confess that few of my architect friends share my interest in food courts. If they notice them at all, they find them commercial, low-brow, beneath contempt. (One exception is the Toronto architect Jack Diamond, who based the design of the dining space of the highly successful student center at York University precisely on a food court.) Those people who do find places like food courts, or drive-in banks, or shopping malls, worth a second glance almost certainly owe a debt to the writing and teaching of John Brinckerhoff Jackson who, for the last half century, has been drawing our attention to such neglected places. “I have wanted people to become familiar with the contemporary American landscape and recognize its extraordinary complexity and beauty,” he has written.*
When Jackson uses the word landscape, he is referring not only to the natural countryside but to the man-made landscape, and not only to parks and gardens but to the full range of man-made environments:highways and roads, towns and neighborhoods, public buildings and houses. Now, all these categories of places, taken separately, are the objects of study of different specialists:agriculturists, landscape architects, highway engineers, urbanists, and architectural historians. What distinguishes a landscape historian like Jackson is that he considers man-made surroundings not as works of art or engineering or economic necessity but as social artifacts, that is, as evocative backgrounds for human activities.
Jackson taught the history of the American landscape at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley for many years, and his writing appeared monthly in the magazine Landscape (1951-1968), which he founded and edited. Several collections of his essays have appeared in print: Landscapes (1970), The Need for Ruins (1980), as well as Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). Retired from teaching for the last decade, the indefatigable octogenarian has continued to observe the contemporary landscape in its large and small manifestations:national parks and backyards, Pueblo villages and mobile-home parks, country roads and suburban driveways, and he writes bracingly about all of these, and more, in his latest book, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time.
ASense of Place, aSense of Time is a collection of fourteen essays, arranged in three major sections, covering roughly the Southwest (Jackson lives in New Mexico), the natural landscape (parks, gardens), and the landscape formed by the automobile. This arrangement sounds quirky but it allows the author to explore both large subjects in detail and detailed subjects in a larger setting. He writes evocatively about the prehistoric dwellings of the Pueblo peoples, for example, reminding us how conceptions of space and time are determined by culture. Unlike European-American buildings, which are conceived as a single unit subdivided into multiple rooms, Pueblo architecture is made by clustering individual rooms, usually in a stepped-back fashion, to produce the characteristic rambling buildings that resemble piles of children’s toy-blocks, and that can still be seen in towns like Taos, New Mexico. Curiously, in view of this approach to building, the Hopi language contains no word for “room.” Jackson speculates that this is because the Hopi conception of space is different than our own:
A Pueblo room (or basic dwelling)is thus nothing more than a three-dimensional interior space in which objects are contained or events occur. The room itself imposes no identity on its temporary content, and in turn the contents do not permanently characterize the room. It is as if the occupants were saying that the single space, the single event is of no consequence:it is repetition which creates the periodic or rhythmic recurrence of spaces and events, the cosmic order.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, these buildings are not marvels of building ingenuity. The walls were built of mud or stone, whatever material was close at hand. The timber beams were never planed or smoothed, and such relatively simple devices as the arch and the column were unknown. The prehistoric Pueblo builders demonstrated a cavalier disregard for natural forces:there were usually no foundations, for example, and walls that supported three or four stories were neither thickened nor properly buttressed. The result is that the buildings quickly showed the effects of erosion and decay. Citing Benjamin Lee Whorf’s research, Jackson suggests that this was not necessarily an indication of technological backwardness but, rather, of a different conception of time, a conception that he calls “antihistorical.” “They built as if the present order were going to last, untroubled by age and neglect and decay,” he writes.
Jackson uses the discussion of prehistoric Pueblo architecture as a base from which to move on to an examination of twentieth-century houses in rural New Mexico. Here, too, he identifies a different conception of the dwelling. The houses he came across in the 1920s when he first visited the region were simple two- and three-room structures, more or less alike, more or less undistinguished. The walls were usually adobe brick, the roofs corrugated tin. To a middle-class sensibility they would appear little more than shacks offering minimal shelter. And so, in a sense, they were, for the surrounding village was much more important to the people who lived in them than their homes, whether for work, for recreation, or for seeing friends; even memorable family events such as anniversaries and reunions were held in church basements and school gyms rather than at people’s houses. Jumping ahead sixty years, Jackson describes the mobile homes and prefabricated houses which now dot the New Mexico landscape and are home to many low-income people. The trailers are healthier and more comfortable than old adobe shacks, but they are used in much the same way as the old adobe shacks of the twenties. Like the shacks, the trailers are more or less alike and considered as useful rather than individually expressive objects.
In his discussion of mobile homes, Jackson does not deride their lack of architectural appeal, their standardized appearance, and their temporariness. He prefers to examine what it is that has made them for many the most accessible form of new housing in the nation. (According to the US Bureau of the Census, the average price of a new mobile home in 1991 was $27,800, compared to an average sales price of a new house, including land, of $120,000.)
This tolerant attitude toward what many see as the aesthetic shortcomings of the American landscape is typical of Jackson’s writing and it has exasperated some people. In The Geography of Nowhere (1993), a spirited criticism of American buildings, James Howard Kunstler has written:
What J.B. Jackson appeared to lack, it turned out, were critical faculties. So caught up was he in the empirical dazzle of his observations that he seemed unable to make judgments about what he was observing. He was not interested in consequences, only manifestations.
In fact, Jackson does make aesthetic judgments, but it is true that he prefers to be an observer of American living arrangements rather than an advocate of conventional beautification. Ithink the reason that he appears uncritical (or is it merely tolerant?) is that often he really admires the various signs of human initiative and creativity no matter how commonplace, and he delights in the ordinary interactions that take place between people and their surroundings, whether it is the way they decorate their backyards, run small businesses in their garages, or organize their lives along the highway. Jackson has much to say about truck stops and about the industrial landscape of loading docks and warehouses.
It’s also possible that Jackson simply does not share some of the values of his critics. After all, there aren’t many academics who would publicly admit, “Iam very pro-automobile, pro-car and pro-truck, and I can’t imagine what existence would be without them.” Or, who would concede, “Like millions of Americans I have no great liking for wilderness and forest, but like the majority of Americans I am fond of trees,” Elsewhere he adds, “I am one of those who believe that our current guilt-ridden worship of the environment is a sign of moral and cultural disarray.” Jackson is critical of groups like the Sierra Club that wish to isolate nature from human use and is more sympathetic to what he calls the humanized landscape of state parks, beaches, and recreation areas.
Three chief themes can be found in A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time. The first is the uniqueness of the American man-made landscape, and the need to understand it on its own terms. Jackson writes vividly of the new kind of historical relationship that settlers in the New World developed with trees. The American forest was a resource to be exploited (unlike in Europe, where it was reserved as an aristocratic hunting preserve), and the early colonists quickly developed ways of using timber in house construction. In fact, Canada and the US are the only two Western countries in which wood is the chief building material. At the same time as trees were exploited they were also being planted, and, ever since colonial Williamsburg, the tree-lined residential street has been a characteristic feature of American urbanism. So were town squares, courthouse squares, and village greens, which were usually ringed by trees.
The true town square was a symbol of a social unity and cohesion that no longer exists, however. Cities became collections of ethnic neighborhoods, and eventually spread farther and wider than anyone expected. This was partly, but by no means entirely, owing to the automobile. For, as Jackson rudely reminds us, Americans have never been decided about how they ought to live:
In theory, but only in theory, we want to duplicate the traditional compact European community where everyone takes part in a rich and diversified public life. But at the same time most of us are secretly pining for a secluded hideaway, a piece of land, or a small house in the country, where we can lead an intensely private nonurban existence, staying close to home.
The compact nineteenth-century railroad suburb was in many ways a solution to this dilemma, providing private houses and gardens, leafy common streets, nearby shopping areas, and access to the city. But it was quickly usurped by the automobile, which did much to break the connection between the city and its suburbs.
The ambivalence that Jackson identifies will probably take Americans in a different direction from traditional city planning. The title of his collection refers to Jackson’s intriguing thesis that Americans’ sense of place, their actual sense of physical belonging, is not mainly conditioned by architecture and urban design but by shared daily, weekly, or seasonal events, that is, by a sense of time. This has something to do with the immensity of the land, and the relative newness of American cities and towns:on the whole, Jackson argues, there has not been enough time to establish the individuality and variety that mark the older cultures of Europe. Spaces are identified not so much by their physical features as by the events that take—and took—place in them. For example, the grand public spaces of Washington, DC, have a lesser place in the national memory than, say, the memory of three-year-old John Kennedy saluting his father’s funeral cortege, or of Marian Anderson singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. One might say, following Jackson, that the homecoming game matters more than the stadium, the parade more than the street, the fair more than the fairground. This also explains the relatively rapid changes that occur in American cities. Places like railroad depots, main streets, and public squares acquire their significance in one period, and lose it in another.
Jackson’s second theme is the notion of the vernacular in building. This term was popularized by architects and architectural historians with reference to popular, traditional, nonacademic techniques and forms of building. Thus, Saxon barns and Norman farmhouses are examples of vernacular buildings and so are New England saltboxes and the rural Southern shacks. Vernacular originally implied pre-industrial, folkloric creations, and some critics such as Bernard Rudofsky, the author of Architecture without Architects (1965), argued for the technological and moral superiority of such “timeless” buildings. This is a romantic view. It is now beginning to be understood that, just as much as formal architecture, the history of vernacular buildings is marked by evolution, invention, and change. It is even likely that fashion plays a role in vernacular designs. A history of popular housing in nineteenth-century America, for example, would show the clear influence of changing Victorian tastes in the way parlors were decorated, or in the kinds of ornament applied to porches. The distinction between vernacular building and architecture has never been absolute:architects have often incorporated vernacular elements in their designs (most popular building methods, like wood framing or laying brick, have vernacular origins), and vernacular building is not immune to formal architectural influences.
According to Jackson, modern vernacular spaces have particular characteristics. Although it does not appear in Jackson’s book, the food court can serve as an example. The court has an overall structure—the food counters are on the periphery, the tables are more or less in the center—but there is no strict separation between the different parts, as in a traditional restaurant. This lack of spatial hierarchy reflects the lack of ritual. It also reflects a curious attribute of modern vernacular spaces. The identity of the food court has very little to do with architecture, but is derived almost entirely from its function. This was brought home to me recently as I ate in a food court in a recently built rest stop on the interstate highway near Albany. The food court was housed in a dramatic, skylit, space that resembled a converted barn. Under other circumstances—if this had been a library or museum, that is, a formal space—the handsome design would have been evocative. Here, it seemed out of place and, worse, disconnected from the busy activity it contained.
The food court is an environment characterized by extreme personal freedom:we buy the food we want, and sit where we want, for as long as we want. This combination of choice, freedom, and informality has taken the food court out of the shopping mall (where it originated in the 1970s)and into all sorts of places:not only highway rest stops, but also amusement parks, airports, and universities. Food courts are among those ubiquitous but almost invisible settings for modern life, like parking garages, or video stores, or automatic bank tellers, whose origin is relatively recent, but to which we have, apparently effortlessly, adapted ourselves.
A characteristic of the food court that I have not mentioned is that it is likely to be patronized chiefly by a combination of office workers, sales people, and blue-collar workers, the broad middle class, what is sometimes called Middle America. That is, of course, what makes it vernacula r since, by definition, vernacular spaces are made and used by the majority of the population. Jackson’s third theme concerns class distinctions. This is a difficult subject for, as Jackson observes, “Americans are reluctant to discuss class distinctions in our culture, probably because we feel this would be undemocratic and adversarial.”
This reluctance has produced euphemisms like “real people” and “ordinary people,” but no broad agreement on definitions of class. Only half jokingly, the late Herman Kahn once described America as a two-class society: those who hunt and those who don’t. In Fear of Falling (1989) Barbara Ehrenreich identified a relatively high-paid, “professional” middle class, which included managers and academics, and which she estimated made up about 20 percent of the population. But she was not always consistent in her descriptions of Middle America, which she sometimes referred to as middle class, and sometimes as working class. Jackson, too, can be inconsistent. He generally distinguishes between the broad middle class and the professional middle class, and in an essay on mobile homes in the Southwest he also refers to the unskilled wage earner, “the man or woman without capital, without any marketable skill, and with only a limited formal education.” But he also tends to use generalizations like “the average American,” and “blue-collar,” and one is not always sure when “middle class” means Middle American and when it refers to the academic and professional elite.
Nevertheless, some of the most stimulating essays in A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time concern the specific ways in which class is reflected in the way that spaces are used. In the past, bourgeois houses were divided into spaces for specialized functions—parlors, boudoirs, breakfast rooms; today, in the new houses built for the professional middle class, although eating spaces are sometimes combined with kitchens, there are also “media rooms,” exercise rooms, bedroom suites. By contrast, rooms in Middle American homes were, and are, characterized by being un-specialized and are used flexibly for different activities at different times of day. People watch television in the kitchen, visiting relatives sleep in the living room, the garage is also a workshop, the driveway is a place to repair cars. This reflects not merely different economic resources—houses are smaller, and families larger—but also a different and more pragmatic relationship to spaces. Jackson underlines this difference in an essay entitled “Working at Home,” in which he examines the way that the attached garages in postwar American houses provided an opportunity for the home to become, once more, a work place as well as a living place. In the Quebec village where I used to live, converted garages were used for barber shops, for repair shops, and beauty parlors; most urban neighborhoods contain extensive networks of semilegal repair shops in garages and basements. Elsewhere, Jackson writes about the way that the proliferation of small trucks has altered the decentralized city, bringing local services to far-flung neighborhoods.
When he was writing articles about car customizers and surfers, Tom Wolfe once likened his role to that of the “renegade cowboy,” who lived with the Indians and returned to town to regale the settlers with tales of what was going on “out there.” Jackson is a serious scholar and, unlike Wolfe, he is not interested in shocking or titillating the reader, Still, his books are similarly a report from “out there”:
Imade no great discoveries and wound up in plenty of blind alleys, but as my text indicates, I have come back convinced beyond a doubt that much of our contemporary American landscape can no longer be seen as a composition of well-defined individual spaces—farms, counties, states, territories, and ecological regions—but as the zones of influence and control of roads, streets, highways:arteries which dominate and nourish and hold a landscape together and provide it with instant accessibility. This means, Ithink, that architecture no longer provides the important symbols. Architecture in its oldest and most formal sense has ceased, at least in our newest landscapes, to symbolize hierarchy and permanence and sacredness and collective identity; and so far the road or highway has not taken over those roles. The road generates its own patterns of movement and settlement and work without so far producing its own kind of landscape beauty or its own sense of place. That is why it can be said that a landscape tradition a thousand years old in our Western world is yielding to a fluid organization of space that we do not yet entirely understand, nor know how to assimilate as a symbol of what is desirable and worth preserving.
This is Jackson at his best:lucid, provocative, iconoclastic, elegant. His work also contains, Ithink, an important message. Much as we would like to, we cannot go back. Not only our landscapes have changed, but so has our way of seeing and experiencing places. If we are to improve our countryside and our cities—and Jackson is never complacent about the shortcomings of the contemporary American vernacular landscape—we must understand them. We must put aside our prejudices and see it—and ourselves—clearly, as we really are, food courts and all.
July 14, 1994