Flickr/Creative Commons License/Peter Muoki

After six weeks sheltering in place at Taliesin West, this weekend I expanded my boundaries beyond the grocery store run that has been my only contact with the outside world. My husband and I packed up our house, got in the car (which promptly broke down, perhaps from the shock of use after so long sitting idle) and took off along I-40, the modern-day equivalent of Route 66 (at least for a large stretch of it), towards our new home in Blacksburg, Va.

The world is still out there, beyond the confines of Zoom and Skype, and it is still the same as it was when I left it all those weeks ago. If something is different, it is the way I experience it now.

What revealed itself first was a world of infrastructure, in part because the route we picked is one of the busiest east-west trucking throughways in the country. After the first hour, when everybody seemed to be joining us on a Friday afternoon exodus from the city, almost all we saw for long stretches was trucks. Those beasts of the interstate already dominated the road, but when there is so little to relativize their scale and speed, you feel as if you are being swallowed up by an unending pod of land-bound whales. Moreover, like cars, those trucks have become completely standardized. Only a few colors on the cabs and some graphics differentiate the containers, stripped down to either bare metal or paint. They are the new America on the road, delivering toilet paper rather than enlightenment, their sameness and anonymity giving no hint of how the goods are made or who uses them.

Aaron Betsky

What I noticed beyond the landscape itself (now dotted with windmill farms that have become the new corn stalks of the prairie) are the big boxes: warehouses, factories, malls, and empty roadside hotels. Those too are completely standardized, with the same absence of color and variation—apart from the entrances or the signs—that you see in vehicles. I once thought these semi-automatic structures were changing for the better, but now I am not so sure.

Their placement, in turn, derives from their proximity to the highway from which we see or approach them; they’re surrounded by now empty lots, which undulate slightly in memory of the cornfields or desert fields below them, leavened only by the fast food restaurants that remain open. Standing in one of those parking lots, I almost started humming the Talking Heads’ “Nothing but Flowers”: “Don’t leave me here/I can’t get used to this lifestyle.”

What I experienced, in other words, was the Heideggerian “broken tool” phenomenon, something the Object Oriented Ontologists have made the core of their theories: You only notice an implement of use when it is broken. As you try to figure out why or what to do, its presence as an object first becomes apparent. You also realize its component nature and, if you take it apart further, the pieces that make up those parts.

Sheltering in place was, as I wrote a few weeks ago, like being in limbo—a blissful existence, I now realize. Reality is all around me now. It doesn’t work, it is ugly, and it is an environmental and social disaster and disgrace.

With working America not working, the country's infrastructure lies exposed for our examination. Its sheer lack of expressiveness only confirms the mass produced, value engineered, and interchangeable nature of everything, and the thinness and lack of materiality on display. There is nothing there, except for the endless variations of that absence of differentiation, which becomes its own object of regard: Why is this factory turned at an angle? Why is that one a slightly darker color beige?

The same is true of the interiors of restaurants. Enter into the few that remain open, and ropes prevent you from using the dining rooms, so that those become objects of scrutiny as they sit in shadow. They are all the same. The materials, layout, and forms are differentiated only by graphics and colors.

The Hilton Memphis, designed by Francis Mah
Wikimedia Commons/Thomas R. Machnitzki The Hilton Memphis, designed by Francis Mah

We picked a hotel one night because it was a round tower in suburban Memphis, which we thought would be a welcome respite from the Best Westerns and La Quintas. But only the bottom floors were open, leaving any potential vistas off limits and making the neo-Portman expressiveness of the structure seem like the leftover set of a science fiction film.

The country is waking up, though. By the third day of our trip, more cars were on the road, and as we reached the South, restaurants were open, and people wandered around without masks. Sheltering in place was, as I wrote a few weeks ago, like being in limbo—a blissful existence, I now realize. Reality is all around me now. It doesn’t work, it is ugly, and it is an environmental and social disaster and disgrace. My trip only made those truths all the more visible.

We should use this crisis to do something. We should take the opportunity to respect nature, to stop invading its precincts and using its resources. We should respect space and how it can keep us healthy and sane. We should design for each moment and each place. But of course, we won’t, certainly not with the incompetent administration now leading the country. We must all fight, with our design work and with the vote, to make ourselves and our shared landscape safer and healthier.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.