By way of the highway: a collection of towers

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

A questioning of methods: If we are to accept existing American culture as an entity, should design not embody the spirit inherent in that culture? In Europe, architecture has been afforded the luxury of time. There, the concept of dwelling has encompassed the questions of man’s position as a rational being separated both from his surrounding environment and his divinity. A sense of alienation from such a universe forced him to search beyond his immediate environment. The role of architecture thus became a mediator, a departure point where man could dwell between heaven and earth. Sanctity, purity, proportion, centrality, and hierarchy all became building blocks for an architecture striving for a transcendental perfection. In the United States, however, architecture has been adjusted to accept its surrounding environment as a formal model. Space is defined either by the existing condition of the environment or by the will of man existing within his surroundings. Man, no longer alien or subservient, now does not need a mediator but instead a throne on which to share in the government within his surrounding environment.

As a result, the American conception of space (i.e. the ‘tradition of the way we view our landscape’) has evolved into something different from that of our European counterparts. In a sense, America is the embodiment of the rational enlightenment in a new society. Its history lies not in the hearts and minds of its citizens, but on the other side of the ocean. Because of this unique occurrence where history loses its proximity, America has been able to develop into what Jean Beaudrillard describes as truly modern: a “utopia achieved”. It is a space where random meets rational and the limitless becomes a limit, a space which rejects European conceptions of centrality and hierarchy.

If the foundations of Europe lie within the philosophy of Aristotle, than those of North America lie within the theories of Newton. Whereas Aristotle revealed the parameters of a perfect order, along with its ensuing hierarchy and centrality.

In Dice Thrown, Benjamin Gianni investigates both early American farmsteads as well as the development of its cities (the rural and the urban) and compares them to European types. In the rural comparison, the European farm seems to be organized around a courtyard, creating an order of symmetry and proportion. The American farm structures, however, are arranged loosely in a cluster, their relationship being functional necessities and a common way of building (the doghouse is designed to look like the shed, which is designed to look like the main house). Moreover, Gianni draws similar contraindications in the urban comparison. In Europe, the city is autonomous, walled off from the outside and arranged in a hierarchy with the most important structures at the highest points in the center. Conversely, in American cities the countryside is brought into the city at its center in the form of parks to remind the people of their link with their natural origins. For traditional Europe then, purity and perfection lie in the symbolic harmony of formal relationships, where a center defines the elements around it and provides a place for man between nature and the heavens. For America, however, purity and perfection lie in the vast expanse of the natural surroundings. No longer a symbolic mediator between heaven and earth, architectural forms confront the world around it as it is.

Without the guidance of formal relationships in culture, we have developed a conception of arrangement (or anAmerican type) which combines the classical adaptation of a rational imposition by a grid system with the limitless aspect of horizontal space. So important in the United States is the sanctity of individual freedoms. This suggests that the individual has the capacity through rational thought to intervene in nature and dictate his or her destiny. In early America, cities were built modeling the roman grid system. The urban plan was derived rationally as an egalitarian way of dividing space. Also inherent in theAmerican mind set, however, was the perception of boundless opportunity and individual freedom which promoted a dimensionless unregulated horizontal expansion of the built environment. The grid emerged as a way of organizing town centers. No sacred truths of the heavens and the earth were revealed, no ritual was carried out in a departure point for the transcendental; instead, a rational organization occurred as a means of confronting an environment as it existed in its own state, just as earlier settlements had developed a seemingly random order based on the boundless opportunities of providing landscape as a means of confronting nature in its own state. An interesting paradox emerged between two orders. One looked as if buildings and places were dropped from the sky, left to be dwelled within depending on how they tumbled and lied to rest on the landscape; a celestial game of jax played on an uneven surface. The other depended on a complete and unyielding imposition on the landscape where every thing, place or building was measured or monitored. As a result cities would emerge, each with their own rational imposition, with no relationship to each other. Today, a certain randomness permeates their rational existence. The result has been deformative. That is the realization of something completely different from original intention. It is a combination of an upward extrusion with the introduction of a diffusive horizontally which re-orders its existence. It is, in a sense, a changing of definition. Even New York, with its density and strictly imposed grid, has a kind of deformative diss-order which defines its place as a totally American (though unique in and of itself) phenomenon. Rem Koolhaas identifies the madness of piling up chaos on chaos in a rigid system which creates its “delirious effect”

Even language, signs, and meaning have become deformative, setting in motion a wave of paradoxical relationships.Intention dissolves over time, history becomes representative or imitative, the immutable becomes alterable, and new definitions are formed to re-explain existence. The universal, the transcendental, they are the spiraling center which decomposes and recomposes, leaving sometimes only a shell from which to decipher meaning and existence. Umberto Eco, in his essay "Travels in Hyper-reality”, examines the relationship in American culture between the sign, the thing, and that which links them together, history. The sign is not a means for understanding the thing it symbolizes but rather is an object which "aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference. This is the mechanism of replacement." In doing so, the sign becomes more real (or hyper-real) than the thing because it is identified by and more tangible to the existence of our culture.

This explains our fascination with historical reenactments, dramatizations, wax museums, escalators, and Dysney main streets. All are hyper-realities which have taken over and become "more real” than the things they represent. They are “better” because they excite the senses and give material evidence of our place in history. In doing so the hyper-real in American culture has successfully performed an about face in the way we define things, creating the perfect irony: “the completely real becomes the completely fake”.

If modernism lies within the tradition of the way we view ourselves and our landscape, if we live in Newton’s limitless universe of absolute space independent of perfect geometry, if we live devoid of origin with no primitive accumulation of time, if architectural space does not always necessitate the symbolic harmony of formal relationships but rather seeks to confront its natural surroundings, if the arrangement of space is deformative, lying somewhere in between rational intervention and the application of the limitless, and if irony is the result of our application of language and meaning, should these conditions not become tools for design in architecture? Does this not suggest that the modern conception of space has deformed itself into something completely different from that of our European counterparts?