July 22, 2004
Hating what we have – loving what we lose

Arts & Letters Daily links to an article which kicks off from a thought that has been close to my heart for some time now, especially the parking lot reference:

Many years ago, I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, but every time I went there, something about the light and space made me think that life was basically meaningless and you might as well surrender hope right away. I was still an art critic in those days, and I would drive from north-east of Los Angeles, where I was supposed to settle into my new suburban existence, over to the downtown museums, look at some art, and drive back. But when I got home I would find that the hours I'd spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.

Every city has them. Thinking about Paris is more likely to bring to mind the Eiffel Tower, or graceful rows of mansard-roofed buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards, than the long cement passages of the Métro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss, or the dank passageways descending from cafés into Turkish toilets. Even national parks steer their visitors into an asphalted world of public toilets, parking lots, and thou-shalt-not signage, stuff that almost everyone is good at fast-forwarding past to the waterfalls and forest glades and elk doing ungulate things in public. Certainly a waterfall is more striking than the parking lot near its foot, but I wonder how it is that visitors can be so sure they saw what they were supposed to and so oblivious of what they were not.

Human aesthetic response is very strange. Very strange. One day, a totally different way of getting around to the automobile will be devised. Something involving jet-packs or helicopters or gravity engines that enable vehicles to travel the way they do in The Fifth Element (an architecturally fascinating movie, I think you will agree). And at that exact moment, all the automobile crap we now complain about – the motorways, motorway intersections, signposts, petrol stations, and car parks – will suddenly acquire the charm of a village made of thatched cottages. Those big and complicated motorway intersections will remain as great big picturesque ruins and be clambered over by tourists armed with whatever has replaced digital cameras. I mean, Spaghetti Junction has all the makings of a future Stone Henge.

By the same token, when thatched cottages was all there was, I'm absolutely sure that people went around saying: bloody thatched cottages.

Or to put it another way, as I once heard it put, as soon as pylons stop being put up and start being taken down, the Society for the Preservation of Pylons will at once be formed, and people will go out and spot them, the way they now spot steam locomotives.


Pylons photoed by me from the train, in northern France, on my Brussels trip earlier this year.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 AM
Category: DesignHistoryTechnologyTown planning