In 2013, an online game called Geoguessr caught fire across the social media landscape. The user is placed in a randomly-selected Google street view—anywhere from a desolate stretch of highway in Alaska to the downtown streets of Monaco—and then asked to pinpoint on a map where in the world they have been dropped. It’s a Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Carmen-San-Diego style challenge that puts the regional identities of the world on digital display. The game has now received sponsorships from the likes of Lufthansa and the Intercontinental Hotels Group, which means I wasn’t the only person who experienced an extreme wanderlust while playing it. After a few minutes (or hours, if I’m being honest) playing Geoguessr, it became clear that the most difficult landscapes to pinpoint are, in fact, the landscapes that many of us experience daily: modern American commercial development.
National companies (think hotel chains, dollar stores, fast food restaurants) spreading their brands to every corner of the country have brought a mix of outcomes in terms of job creation, quality of life, and national identity. But what are the consequences to our physical environment, our “sense of place?” Recently, a Best Western Glo hotel has been proposed for a site on the edge of downtown Providence and sparked some reflection about the effects of brand-centric design. While most architectural critics have focused on prestige commissions—museums, tall towers—these chains have become the new, de facto “International Style” of the 21st century. It may already be too late for some places, but as this type of development continues to march ahead, we have a responsibility to ask whether the buildings that we encounter daily have a positive impact on our community, and if they don’t, how we might improve them.
To begin, it’s worthwhile to ask what “regional identity” is and why (or even if) it’s important. Regions are commonly defined by political boundaries at a variety of scales from counties to nations. Our lived experience of a region might be better defined by the elements that provide a feeling of commonality within it, and demarcate a contrast from neighboring regions. These elements usually emerge organically from the climate, natural geological features, and the culture of the inhabitants, and may not follow political boundaries. The built environment can reinforce these regional characteristics as, for example, a Rhode Island farmhouse looks different from a North Carolina farmhouse because of the different weather conditions, building traditions, and crop types that each building serves.
Much of the history, culture, and even some of the “je ne sais quoi” of a place can be gleaned from the edifices and urban form of a place. It’s in the details: roof pitches tell us about the climate, while ornament and iconography (including graffiti and street art) tell us about the shared cultural values, and public spaces tell us about how people interact and collaborate (or not). Consider how the indigenous peoples of North America created regionally-based structures around the country—the tee-pee, the igloo, the pueblo, etc. These were brilliant combinations of form, function, and local materials.
Today a whole host of factors are chipping away at the impact of regional identity. Exhibit A: the ever-expanding connective tissue of technology, allowing us rapid digital (and soon physical) connections with other people, expanding our community beyond physical neighbors. Exhibit B: the demise of traditional brick-and-mortar establishments as online retail and in-home entertainment become standard, and fewer daily necessities (or luxuries) force us to venture into public space. Exhibit C: developments that are scaled and built for the automobile rather than the human body. Exhibit D: the trend for Americans to rent rather than own their residence. Although technically we’re moving less than ever before, renters are more likely to move, and more transient residents could mean less personal investment in the idea of regional identity. Yet humans have long taken comfort in belonging to recognizable groups; as the factors above alter our understanding of communal identity, perhaps they increase our desire to seek out regionally authentic environments for some primordial reassurance.
Distinctive regional identities are also critical for the economic bottom-line of a place, from tourism revenue to housing valuations to (most importantly) getting people to care about and invest their time and treasure in a community. As Edward McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute puts it, “when it comes to 21st century economic development…if you can’t differentiate your community from any other, you have no competitive advantage.” Some argue that regional identity only matters to urban city centers, but that unfairly shortchanges the vibrant, treasured towns and villages across the country, and small town America is already facing an uphill battle.
Like most subjective concepts, there are valid concerns that surround our understanding and defense of “regional identity.” The first, and perhaps most threatening to architectural critics, is that of “kitsch.” Kitsch does not contribute to authentically distinctive places. It reduces the definition of “local context” to a small cadre of details that, while not problematic in and of themselves, are used indiscriminately and in a resolutely stagnant manner, creating a copy of a copy of a copy. In-so-doing, the designer (and by extension the public) misses the “why” that underlies these design ideas. For example, wood brackets are placed under every eave of a home to make it “Craftsman,” without regard for their original purpose of supporting deep overhangs and creating tectonic ornament. It’s akin to a poet who, instead of studying the form of a sonnet and then writing a new poem in that form, simply cuts up lines of famous sonnets and pastes them together at will.
A second concern is that preserving regional identity necessitates the rejection of any and all architectural forms that are “new” or “foreign.” On the contrary, the most vibrant regional traditions allow for a balanced integration of new ideas to accommodate new functions and respond to the traditions of new inhabitants. Consider the way that Irving Gill’s architecture in southern California took the Spanish Mission style and infused it with contemporary ideas, or the way that Lake Flato’s work feels undeniably Texan but undeniably contemporary and inventive. Regional identity should be like an overarching theme that can tie together a number of variations, including contemporary design ideas and forms.
For me, the allure of travel is linked to experiencing places that are markedly different from where I live. Returning home, all of the myriad awakenings induced by foreign surroundings heighten the awareness of my own familiar environment. Sadly, the domino effect of brand proliferation may be making this experience steadily more rare, at least among cities in the U.S. I’m convinced that part of the rapid rise of AirBnB is that people like staying in places that feel true to the local spirit of a place, unlike a Best Western.
And this brings us back to the proposed hotel and its effect on Providence. Like many hotel corporations, Best Western has a stock series of standard designs that they provide to developers. These designs are focused on the type of market they aim to attract and their “place guidelines” are location driven: “ideal for secondary downtown and urban markets, business parks and highway locations.” Unsurprisingly, a regional built environment is not acknowledged. And instead of referencing New England, the city is treated to a big blue fin that will cast its identical glow on countless other streets across the U.S. I recognize that economics are in the driver’s seat here: in order for a developer to invest in a building, it has to make a profit, and it’s likely that many potential hotel sites can’t demand high enough room rates to justify a custom building. It’s also true that a functioning hotel can bring people, jobs, and meaningful life to the street (unlike the parking lot currently occupying the Providence Glo’s site).
Yet there are national hotel developers who do “local” particularly well: the ACE hotel group for one, or the ASH NYC hotels for another. Their model is to start with existing buildings rather than building new, and to be active partners in community events. I’d note that there are quite a few abandoned buildings in the world looking for love and willing to contribute all of their embodied energy to ‘new’ hotels.
However, if new construction prototypes are the modus operandi of (economic) necessity, there are ways they could be done better. Consider a standard plan type with variable features (cladding, windows, roof forms) that could acknowledge the indigenous architecture of a place. Even places that seem to lack pre-existing regional identity (I’m looking at you roadside rest stops and business parks) can “zoom out” and draw from a larger regional character. Let this regional character read louder than your brand identity; you can use signage for that. Second, consider the climate of where you’re building and take some leadership in holistic sustainability. This doesn’t mean tacking on a few solar panels, it means following lessons from local building forms and using local materials (hint: EIFS panels are not native to any climate). Third, involve the local residents by paying more than mere lip-service to public engagement throughout the development process. While this absolutely won’t guarantee that all sides will be happy, a transparent process stands a better chance of producing a more respected final product. This public engagement might even extend beyond the groundbreaking—imagine the effect on regional identity if a hotel hosted a community garden or provided low-cost event space for local non-profits.
It is a sad irony that as the diversity of the American population is increasing, the diversity of our built environment is decreasing. In answer to legitimate neighborhood concerns about the Glo hotel, it was disheartening to read that the Providence city planning commission chair simply called on the community to be more open to “new” architecture “that reflects the time we live in.” While I understand that review commissions often don’t wield much power, I have a sinking fear that if our communities (and their planning boards) don’t start demanding design that takes our distinctive places seriously, the architecture that “reflects the time we live in” will be reduced to a relentless monotony of cheap, brand-centric structures, none of which will be worth preserving for the future. It is a tremendous challenge to slow the momentum, and there are plenty of losing battles ahead—but for the long game of humanity, recognizing the place you’re standing when you stand somewhere doesn’t seem like an unreasonable goal.
Ben Willis is an architect at Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, a firm in Providence, RI working to save the world from sprawl. He serves as an ACE mentor and is an avid a cappella singer. This article was first posted on Common\Edge.
“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.