Author: Carl Siegel
In “Some Brief Thoughts in Defense of the Sprawl”, Carl Siegel gives a refreshing view of the urban sprawl of our country. He opposes the views of Sorkin and Moore in a logical way, using the current state of our build environment as his evidence. This article is a contradiction to what the architecture community thinks; this is what makes this article important. – Editor: Dan Rice
New York City is the kind of place that beats you down. It is lonely, cold, crowded, uncaring, and intensely public. Nowhere, not even in your own home (likely a tiny apartment whose yearly rent is a small fortune itself), can you truly escape the hustle and bustle and noise of the city. You can never escape the people, the crowds, and the relentless anonymity that goes along with them. It takes a certain type of person to live there, let alone thrive there.
Moore, Davis, and Sorkin (Lange 2012) base their criticisms upon the ideal that a public life is a better life. A nice thought, surely, but one that modernity has proven to be, at least in the bulk of the country, in practice false. The most important lesson we can learn from today’s society is that people pay for what they want, and that the sprawl was created and continues to exist because, ultimately, that is what most people want.
It’s nice to imagine a public that is socially engaged, involved in a wider public discourse, or that would begin a revolution for their commonly held ideals. But that isn’t the society we live in. For better or for worse, we live in a society centered on apathy, in which people are far less concerned for the public good than for their own well-being as individuals.
Maybe that point of view is overly reductive and cynical. Maybe it is reflective of my own apathy and tendency towards valuing a private life over a public one. But I don’t believe that we would have indistinct, generic suburbs populating so much of our country if it weren’t the case that most people don’t want a life that engages with public space and concerns beyond a superficial level. Furthermore, I don’t believe that that necessarily is a bad thing. I am always cautious of criticism and activism that tries to tell people what is best for them. Sorkin, Davis, and to a lesser extent Moore are certainly guilty of that by aggressively promoting the idea that society needs monuments, public spaces, and meaningful civil engagement.
I counter their arguments with a simple one: we should let the people choose. Suburbs and the sprawl exist because there is a demand for them to exist, and it is foolish to fight against them. People want the privacy that these generic, flavorless places afford. It is another discussion altogether why that is the case, but in the context, I don’t think motivation particularly matters. People can lead rich, rewarding lives in the city, but they can also lead lives of the same quality in the sprawl.
I’m not saying that’s what I, personally, want. I love the overcrowded and chaotic nature of the city much more than I hate the lack of privacy that those things cause. But, on the other hand, I see the appeal of the suburbs (and not just because I’ve lived in them most of my life). I think it is time that we give up the assumption in architectural discourse that the city, and the culture of engagement that by necessity goes with it, is the place where capital “A” architecture must exist. Instead, we should embrace the fact that the suburbs are not only here to stay, but are an equally valid place for us to work and try to improve lives. Not everyone can be an activist, just as not everyone can be a New Yorker.
Lange, Alexandra. Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2012. Print. pp. 71-116.