Mattijs Numans

It is the dog days of summer, when many of us are on vacation. We run off to the beach, camp, or a country retreat, or jet off to places of great natural beauty and relaxation, isolated pampering, or perhaps enlightenment in some great museum. But, what would you go see in America if you were visiting here? Which places, parks, monuments, or buildings represent this country?

For most of us that answer might be easy: the Statue of Liberty, the buildings of the government’s three branches in Washington, D.C., natural or human-made landmarks such as the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge, or maybe our landscapes, from the human-made towers and canyons of New York, to the gridded plains that themselves represent Jeffersonian ideals.

To old friends of mine from the Netherlands who recently took their three sons on a three-week minivan trip through the middle of this country, America was slightly more granular, and it made me realize to what level America is really about the middle ground, about popular culture.

Mattijs Numans

Mattijs Numans

Starting in Florida, they experienced some landscapes of note, including the southernmost tip where we meet the Caribbean, and the Everglades. But their day-to-day sense of place consisted of highways, messy cities, suburbs where they often stayed to save money, and landscapes that were not particularly of interest. This country exists—between its natural monuments, they agreed—as a vast space of sameness dotted with Starbucks that periodically sharpened their focus.

When they came to human-made highlights, the ones they went to see were not usually the monuments we would generally choose if we were visiting somewhere in Europe: grand edifices like churches or palaces, or their secular equivalents such as museums. The places they visited were more like the Eiffel Tower and the Red Light District in Amsterdam: places of fun and accidental memories.

They visited Disney World; Key West, Fla.; New Orleans (taking a tour through both the French Quarter and the Ninth Ward, or what is left of it); a plantation; Graceland; the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (the only museum or memorial, as far as I could tell); Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (the only piece of high-end architecture, but also a private house that is a sort of accidental monument); and then Niagara Falls before they ended up in Boston.

I wanted to steer them to more monuments, but realized the middle of this country has a dearth of them.There are state capitals, but you really have to be either a local buff or a neo-classical architecture nerd to journey to those. There are museums, but few with the attraction power of those in European cities of similar sizes.

Perhaps just as important is that what attractions they found were embedded in a landscape without clear focus: plantations along the way, Graceland in the suburbs, theme parks in what had—until these mega-anchors grew up—been exurbs.

Mattijs Numans

Seeing our intertwined human-made and natural landscape through their eyes, I came to realize how it is in America—more than any other place I know—that the unusual, the important, the beautiful, and the horrible, is (often thinly) spread through the mundane. Not all European or Asian cities are beautiful, but they are dense and, what is more important, focused in a manner that gives a particular place to the citadel on the hill overlooking the city, the parliament on its square, or the church rising out of the densest part of the old city. Here in America you come upon, for instance, a motel on the edges of downtown Memphis that to these visitors has become the most moving reminder of what made America both awful (the assassination of King) and so beautiful (the very fact that it was so movingly recalled).

Perhaps what makes America great is “the messy vitality,” as Robert Venturi, FAIA, put it. Designing for that, rather than for the ages and the elite, means making the mess better and embedding it with moments of meaning that do not stand out, but open up and reveal what matters about a country still inventing itself in a sprawling manner.

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.