Until last year’s re-designation of the much-condensed Lytle Park Historic District, I never gave much thought to our built environment. I’m into words. The visual arts. And theater. Buildings were just there, a place to get in out of the rain.
But after I watched the demolition of the Civil War era Arch Street Row houses I started thinking more about what would replace those historic structures, muddling around with my own personal philosophy of architecture and the role it plays in the life of a community. A city invests so much money and energy in any new building. I doubt there’s ever been a single significant structure that didn’t involve years of arguments. These are some of the most important decisions we make together, the permanent record of our values. In medieval Europe, the dominant trend was cathedrals. In the United States during the second half of the twentieth century we worshiped the corporation and built towers in the sky, higher and mightier than anything else on the skyline.
Times are changing and they are changing fast. What do we value today?
As I was passing through the Paris Airport on my way to Italy last week, the soaring ceilings and high-end design of their newest terminal stopped me in my tracks. The space didn’t feel like some little side-note on the way to someplace better. I felt like I was in a church.
When we invest such a significant portion of society’s resources in an airport terminal, what does it tell us about ourselves – or at least this powerful, elite segment of the world population? The white-picket fence is nowhere to be found. We worship the journey, the new and fleeting experience. We demand to never be bored and count on technology everywhere. $3,000 handbags are normal. Nature is a decorative component and you can never get enough varieties of caviar. What are we searching for as we run to our gates, clutching our passports? Is it a more exclusive, higher-end version of ourselves?
Whatever it is, I’m kind of hoping this is one of the buildings that won’t last.