Beyond Buildings

 

A Jones for Indiana: A European Rides through American Space

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Michigan Road, Ind. Courtesy: The Michigan Road

 

“This landscape is incomprehensible.” Those were surprising words to me, as we were driving through what to most of us seems like the most normal mixture of sprawl and agricultural land possible in the heart of heartland Indiana. Then again, the speaker was Michiel Riedijk, a Dutch architect who had never been outside of America’s big cities.We took him for a drive to see America.

 

What did he find so strange about our spaces? “There are no borders, there are no edges, and everything just flows into each other. The edge of the road becomes a field or a lawn or a parking lot.” That is certainly a definition of space in America. It is one of flows, and has been since immigrants started arriving here almost four centuries ago, moving west in waves until they hit California, then turning back to smooth out the spaces they had already colonized. As J.B. Jackson was wont to point out, this is not a country of fences or compounds, but of isolated objects sitting in space. The car only increased our ability to smooth space, while demanding more and more room for asphalt to move or park. New technologies made borders ever more irrelevant.

 

It is also a commentary on the lack of definition that seems to haunt so much American architecture in the broadest sense of the word. Frank Lloyd Wright and his successors worked hard to eliminate the differences between inside and outside, and to break down the grid underlying the home. Perhaps their efforts were only belated reactions to the innate tendency of space flow. It is also a commentary on the lack of defined public space: As Riedijk pointed out, you can tell where the fast-food restaurant’s or the house’s property ends by where the mowing stops and scragle takes over.

 

Such openness is democratic, allowing for a freedom of movement, both literally and socioeconomically, that we all cherish. It is also very wasteful, as it does not make use of space with anything approaching efficiency. “The waste is amazing,” Riedijk pointed out; “it is as if you put no value on the land at all.” Sometimes that surfeit is beautiful, or at least elegiac, as in the bits of fields that have gone back to woods or decaying barns sitting off the side of a winding road, but sometimes it reeks of environmental and social devastation. Often it is just ugly and repetitive, as in the “gourmet boulevards,” as Riedijk called them, of fast-food restaurants that mark the entry, such as it is, to all towns we encountered.

 

To Riedijk, those qualities were evident in terms of the popular culture with which America has presented itself to ourselves and the rest of the world: “The green here reminds me of Blue Velvet,” he would say as we wound our way through fields made lush by the spring rains. “You feel as if something bad will happen, somehow, somewhere here.”

 

 
Seymour, Ind. Courtesy: Planning Commissioners Journal

 

When we entered a small town and walked around, he remarked on the more mundane reality of such places: “It is as if the whole place has been pancaked by asphalt, there are so many more parking lots than buildings.” It was the surfeit of emptiness, without direction or seeming purpose, which troubled Riedijk more than anything else. Yet he was also open to the beauty of these places on the edge of being non-places: “This is so magnificent, so beautiful, I am not sure why,” he kept saying, in various combinations, as we drove through the array of Indiana.

 

It takes a foreigner to make us realize how strange and particular the American landscape is. To us, Europe, Asia, and other continent present challenges of comprehension. To a European trained to look at space and its definitions, the non-space we take for granted and try to deny with “good” architecture and planning, has a quality that is difficult to discern. Instead of trying to import European—or Japanese, or Chinese—models to cure us of the spread of space, perhaps we would do better to first try to understand what makes it so strangely beautiful.

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.