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The Heart of the Matter

The American built environment has a demonic secret.
(By Ursula Page/Shutterstock)

Years ago, I launched my explorations of the American landscape in the New York Times Sunday Magazine—back then, a sane and dignified organ of the public discourse—with an assignment that had the working title “Why is America so [bleeping] Ugly?” You know: suburbia and all its nauseating accessories and furnishings. In the end it was too much for them, that is, for their fusty politburo of an editorial board, and they rejected the darn thing—which I promptly turned into a book proposal and sold to Simon & Schuster for a sum far larger than the penurious rates the Times grudgingly paid (and always months late, after a lot of pointless jerking around). It became a pretty successful book called The Geography of Nowhere. Okay, goodie for me.

But that basic question—why is America so [bleeping] ugly?—turned out to be mighty difficult to penetrate, to get past the superficial horror of the national demolition derby to the heart of the matter. My early research brought me into the orbits of celebrity postmodernists such as Robert Venturi and his wife/partner-in-architecture, Denise Scott-Brown, who had themselves published a pop-academic book in the 1970s called Learning From Las Vegas, a place they found charming as all git-out, mostly for ironic reasons. Big mistake going to them. In fact, the interview in their Philadelphia conference room was an epic disaster, which climaxed with Ms. Scott-Brown hollering at me: “If America isn’t tidy enough for you, then move to [bleeping] Switzerland!” (Sound of door slamming…)

I took some other wrong turns in my research (Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman) but eventually stumbled into pure gold with the New Urbanists, who, by a coup of synchronicity, had just that year (1993) banded into their formal brotherhood called the “Congress for the New Urbanism” with great reformist elan. They’d scoped out the crisis of suburban development, through-and-through, upside down, backwards and forwards. They knew exactly what was messed up about the crap human habitat we’d managed to smear all over the landscape from sea to shining sea, down to the curb ratios of the six-lane intersections and the pathetic fenestrations of the archetypal raised ranch house, with the dopey screw-on plastic Mickey Mouse ear shutters.

My encounter with these N.U. characters—Andres Duany, Lizz Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, Stefanos Polyzoides, Peter Katz, Dan Solomon, Vincent Scully, and many others—propelled me to finishing that book I owed to Simon & Schuster. But their technical knowledge fell just a hair short of explaining the profound spiritual failure induced by our national mode of life. These places made people feel terrible, hopeless, unconnected, lost in a paralyzing anomie. Finally, I discovered, you had to locate the explanation to all that in hard physics. It wasn’t just that America’s everyday world was badly designed. It possessed a demonic quality that could only be explained by the foundational principles of the universe: the immersive ugliness of America, down to the living, breathing, off-gassing, delaminating, oxidizing elements of its composition, amounted to entropy made visible.

It was a gross violation of that basic order of the universe. That’s why it had such a sickening effect on people. If human artistry is the act of imbuing the material world with a palpable sense of vitality, aliveness, then the last thing you want to do is saturate it with the force in nature that induces death, which is exactly what entropy is all about—not something that you want to mess around with. The suburban fiasco was not just characterized by the absence of artistry, and the grace that its application bestows on human sensibility, but rather by a Satanic anti-artistry that aggressively sought to defeat everything in the human spirit that brought us closer to resonance with nature, especially connection with our fellow humans. Hence, the common mournful cry about the loss of community, which was about the only way that ordinary citizens could articulate their distress, besides recognizing the obvious ugliness of the highway strip and the deadening monotony of the housing subdivisions.

The New Urbanists made a game effort to change up this journey into darkness, but the template for building anything new in America was so fortified by tragically bad regulations and habits of mind that theirs was a Sisyphean struggle. Even now, as mass-motoring descends the off-ramp to Memory Lane, the demonic urge to complete the last exurbs persists to the bitter end. It’s also tragically ironic that the end of all that appears to be attended by the end of the nation itself as we have known it, a colossal battle between the advocates of liberty and the would-be commissars of coercion.

In the shadow of COVID-19, the next disposition of things is struggling to be born. Like everything else in this universe of dynamic disequilibrium, the system pulsates from one state to another, always seeking balance back to the median. For the moment, there seems to be only the flux of disorder around us, confusion everywhere: work, politics, business, sex, art. We’ll move past this time of our subjugation to demonic forces because there is an equal force for good pulling us back in the other direction. As that happens, we’ll surround ourselves with buildings and furnishings that express our gratitude and worthiness for being here in the first place. Don’t give up. Don’t despair.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.