I'm something of a gloomy Gus. The books I'm reading these days have titles like Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. My personal neurochemistry notwithstanding, I'd like to think that my present literary tastes also happen to be indicative of the times: There's been a violent upswing in the popularity of apocalyptic nonfiction. Most of these titles arrived too late to be precisely, chronologically Millennialist. But who's counting, what with signs of the End Times all around us?
The Apocalypse started behind schedule, not on Jan. 1, 2001, as predicted, but eight months later, on Sept. 11. The attacks lit a spark of national self-reflection, which, instead of blazing into a collective drive for reform, gave way to an epic state of decadence. Heedless of all warning, and despite the conflicts that ensued in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States embarked on a seven-year binge after 9/11, with Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears playing the Whores of Babylon, and architects like Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid building the sets. The War on Terror came with no rationing or draft, just a presidential enjoinder to spend freely. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” George W. Bush said two weeks after the attacks. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” The nation obeyed.
When Rem Koolhaas' Prada “epicenter” store opened in SoHo on Dec. 15, 2001, the late New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp breathed a sigh of relief that the terrorists hadn't stopped the party: “If we must shop to save America, some of us won't mind shopping for architecture. If you're in the market for ideas, here's the place to stock up. Try Contemporaneity—your free gift.” Free? Muschamp, the voice of the baby boomer architecture generation, underestimated the hefty price of our consumer culture—the American Dream in its latter-day, credit-fed, McMansion-sized variety.
The whole house of cards came crashing down this year, in the form of 1.76 million foreclosures and counting. Other markets followed suit, and the succession of disastrous news reports sounded like the breaking of so many seals. Were there seven of them? I lost track: The subprime market tanked, and a 90-year-old Ohio woman shot herself rather than face losing her home; gas prices reached $4.50 a gallon; Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, as did Aloha, ATA, and Frontier airlines; car sales reached a 15-year low; unemployment reached a 16-year high; food riots broke out in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Egypt; and polar bears resorted to cannibalism as Arctic ice shrank.
Then, thank heaven, Barack Obama won the presidential election. Jesse Jackson wept openly on television, and for a moment the nation breathed easier. Despite all that has happened, and all that's sure to come, I'm fairly confident that the end of the world is not nigh. But we're definitely witnessing the end of the world as we know it, the one fueled on easy credit and cheap energy. The loss of thousands of lives on 9/11 wasn't enough to change our habits, but the loss of millions of jobs during 2008 sure seems to be doing the trick.
The party's over, people. Life, and architecture with it, will never be the same.