American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Part 6
The city in question

The three essays in this final section represent the tremendous expansion in recent years of urban spatial and historical studies. More pointedly, they exemplify widespread concern during the 1990s over the shifting character and quality of American urban life— particularly around issues of public space.

In his introduction to an influential (and justly pessimistic) book of essays on “the end of public space” in “the new American city,” architect and critic Michael Sorkin points to a group of themes occupying center stage in 1990s-vintage urban studies. He writes of the rise of rapid transportation and electronic communications and their effect in breaking down the connective tissues and stable geographical relations of the city as traditionally conceived. He expresses alarm over the new obsession with security and surveillance, the subsequent rise in “new modes of segregation,” and the blandly simulated, themed nature of so much contemporary architectural and urban design. His remarks are politically and humanistically charged—and arguably rather nostalgic— grounded in concern over the loss of intimacy and real democratic potential that the new American city inscribes.

In an equally impassioned and polemical essay—a version of which appeared in Sorkin’s book—the Marxist social historian Mike Davis provides a socio-spatial critique of downtown Los Angeles as it was redeveloped beginning in the 1980s. Davis describes this environment as a battlefield for renewed class struggle, one where the battle is all but over. He finds that real public space in Los Angeles is nearly gone, genuine democracy is in a state of shambles, security and privatization are on the rise, and the poor and underprivileged are on the run through “sadistically” designed street environments. In what seemed at the time something of a tonic to the hero worship he more regularly received, Davis cast architect Frank Gehry in the sinister role of paranoiac-aggressive auteur—a designer whose “work clarifies the underlying relations of repression, surveillance and exclusion” that characterize Los Angeles’s new spatial realities.

The final essay in this collection, by journalist Marc Spiegler, discusses the increasingly peculiar and troubled relationship between a major international airport—in this case Chicago’s O’Hare—and the city it purportedly serves. In fact, O’Hare and other airports like it, have become virtually independent, self-contained “communities.” Like scores of shopping malls, office parks, and highway strips across the US, O’Hare provides the focal point for an “edge city.” Sprawling and placeless, drawing life and business away from downtown, based on convenience rather than culture or community, O’Hare is a

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