The 70’s were a testament to the triumph of engineering over artistry. It’s not just that Main Street was ugly; parks were ugly for goodness sake. Even a child could see that decisions were being made expeditiously, and practically, but with no thought whatsoever given to aesthetics. Chain link fence was the order of the day. Giant chunks of concrete were used to block off overgrown pathways and benches were lower case h’s formed out of cement and irregular wooden slats: “There’s your god damn bench.” Even the signage in the park was of the reflective interstate highway variety.
A Pre War, a Post War, and a Post 1980 park building(2 and 3 are the old and new façades of the same building):
“Yes, these are the first public buildings which will give our children a message of how we view their importance and the importance of the journey on which they are about to embark. No. No embellishments. No decoration of any kind. The little shits can just walk through those metal doors and get their asses to class walking down these linoleum hallways.”
A pre war school:
It’s no wonder then that newly constructed commercial spaces took “form follows function” to a new levels of horrific inhuman ugliness. With the imprimatur of the avant garde banks, movie theaters, donut shops, gas stations, and grocery stores were given the green light to spread banality along every artery of the expanding corpus of post war development. The cars themselves stopped caring about how they looked then too. The only things pretending to artistry on a Chrysler or Chevrolet of the late 70’s was the name plate; if they could have made brutalist automobiles they would have I’m sure.
Pre War Branch Library and a Post War version:
In the 80’s something happened though; people started contemplating decoration again. Around that time there was an ad, I can’t remember what for, and some old, crotchety architect grumbled that he wouldn’t sink to putting pink pediments on his buildings until, under pressure to save the firm, he does. That about sums up the period from the late 80’s into the 90’s: Artistry, poor artistry, inferior artistry, grudging artistry, but artistry once again starts to appear in the public realm: schools get pseudo archways and almost recognizable pilasters, parks get faux tree trunk guard rails, cast iron benches, and human scale wooden signage.
In the public domain these gestures have turned into places and spaces with real gravitas now. You can see where architects have designed additions to libraries originally built in the “Here’s your fucking library” period of American architecture, and have hidden the horizontal middle finger with a building worthy of a community with self respect and dignity. Main Street is beautiful. The sidewalks are ornamented with brick and ceramic detailing. The lampposts are no longer indistinguishable from those on the interstate. Building facades, doorways, and windows meet the eye in pleasing ways.
The key is that these efforts seem to be sincere. On Main Street. Out in Stroad World sincerity, as the saying goes, is the key; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. Putting lipstick on a pig, and gilding a lily both would both be more integral to whatever one does with lilies and pigs than real architecture has to do with the automobile centered universe of the strip mall and the big box. It is a place where eating, shopping, and being entertained become inextricable from all other industrial processes. People are widgets to be moved around, spewed out, fed, sated, and returned to their dwelling units via the curb cut to “Blue Brook Acres”: The concrete, glass, polyvinyl, and gypsum board cubicles for human habitation surrounded by individually assigned and numbered asphalt strips for mobility prosthetics.
These are the real “self storage units”. Not homes in communities where people live their lives with others who feel affection for the built environment and the others who inhabit it, but rather industrially produced containers designed to seal in the individual until he or she is needed to provide functionality within the productive or consumptive matrix of the economy.