Last week I had to drive all the way from Cincinnati to Spring Green, Wis. To do so, I had to navigate through Chicago, skirting its core for a solid hour of driving. The experience reminded me how big cities have become. We think of cities as being big in their cores, but it is their breadth and reach that makes them astonishing. Sitting in a rest stop—a kind of miniature mall suspended over the highway—I wondered how these cities are exactly big. And I realized, as I have noted before that we have a very limited vocabulary to describe what these cities have become.

Suburbs of Chicago.
Charles Tilford/Flickr via Creative Commons license Suburbs of Chicago.

Most of the qualities are pretty simple. Big cities are big. To be precise, they reach a scale at which we cannot comprehend them as a whole. Even when we fly into them on an airplane, let alone approach them by car or train, we cannot see them all together. Once we are inside them, they lack the single focal point, the clearly recognizable pattern, or the sense of hierarchy that made sense of smaller cities. This is the difference between Cincinnati, where I live now, or even Chicago, and Los Angeles—let alone the large Asian cities that are now dominating urban growth scenarios. They are not centripetal anymore. They are centrifugal, and we whirl around them. Hovering over the cars whizzing in both directions, I had no idea where I was.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky

Bigness also has a presence. From the heroic scale of highway cuts and interchanges to the soaring of skyscrapers to heights that begin truly to scrape the firmament, megalopolises offer us form that is so removed from the scale of our human bodies that we lose our sense that it is humans like us who have made these forms and inhabit them. The structures of these big cities offer a new form of heroic monumentality, one that does not consist of buildings that are, as Louis Sullivan believed skyscrapers should be, like a man, but of shopping malls and endless developments made up of repetitive components. It is, in fact, profoundly horizontal. It reaches out, petering out into confusion or beckoning with signs, rather than coming to a point.

Megalopolises also offer, however, an intricacy of scale, texture, and imagery. Because they attract people from elsewhere—reaching far beyond the catchment area of 50 to 100 miles on which previous generations of cities drew—street life is filled with forms, colors, and even typefaces (setting aside, for the moment, smells and sounds) that will be other than what most people who have come to the city grew up experiencing. This is, again, as true in the outer reaches of L.A.’s eastern suburbs and Shenzhen’s neighborhoods as it is in the traditional, downtown-adjacent immigrant neighborhoods.

Shenzhen, China.
Dean Wallis/Flickr via Creative Commons license Shenzhen, China.

Then there is speed. Everything moves faster in the city, from people walking to public transportation to information to activities, from meetings to meals. Only cars seem to move slower. Because of the big city’s immense distance, however, everything takes longer—whether it is getting to your floor in a high-rise or getting to your home from work. Time, in other words, becomes disconnected from place and space. And, everything changes. Buildings change much more quickly than they were designed to do, taking on different uses, appearances, and even realities. We passed through a Chicago suburb I thought I knew from a few years ago, but new development made it unrecognizable. Because these cities have so few landmarks that remain, speed accelerates blur.

Los Angeles freeway interchanges.
Yoyo Hick/Flickr via Creative Commons license Los Angeles freeway interchanges.

Finally, these megalopolises are beige. The dominant color, for all that variation, is a graduation from brown to gray to off-white, with only signs puncturing through that color. The surfaces are beige, too; they are neither smooth nor rough, neither sharp nor rounded. I am not quite sure what to call this palette, and have not even found many artists who can capture the peculiar background that is yet everywhere present.

Mexico City.
Alex Mahan/Flickr via Creative Commons license Mexico City.

Together, these conditions create a simple situation; you never know where you are. We need a wide range of technology to make our way through the city, but we have a hard time feeling comfortable or familiar with a place within those coordinates. Things always move, as do people (including us) and information. We have to go with the flow.

Tokyoform/Flickr via Creative Commons license Tokyo.

These are not new conditions. The first people who took trains out from central stations in the 19th century noted how everything became a blur, and we have two centuries of poets and painters making us aware of the scale, rhythm, and unknowable quality of the big city. What is new is that you are never even sure when you are even in the city. Central cores dissolve into nodes, sprawl dissolves the cities into concatenations of structures with different degrees of density that reach out into the hinterlands for not just miles, but hours of travel time. The city, with all its bigness, complexity, and speed, has become a miasma.

Such a megalopolis cannot be tamed. It cannot be designed or redesigned. We can create moments of sense within it. We can try to make it easier to navigate within it. We cannot close ourselves off from it, even in the suburbs. We cannot pretend it does not exist by turning it into villages. We have to figure out how to make our home, our place, and our sense of belonging, even if for a moment, within its contours. This is the work of architecture.

Seoul, South Korea.
Malink_78/Flickr via Creative Commons license Seoul, South Korea.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.