A New Perspective on Forming the American Landscape
In this innovative book, Keller Easterling, an assistant professor of architecture at Yale, takes the point of view that the visual aspect of things like highways is only a small part of the story, and that the artifact itself—the highway, the suburban house—is not as important to our understanding as either the protocols which form it or the ways in which small changes to those protocols may have huge impacts on major built systems.
One seemingly light example mentioned in the book was a meeting held in Washington at the which the decision was made for the signs on interstate highways to be green. But that is minor compared, for example, with the decisions made by the Federal Highway Administration, some explicit and some not, which put a rift between highway planning and city planning. These decisions led, the reader infers, to the wholesale destruction of cities by the interstate highway system.
The book is organized in three main parts: dealing with landscapes, highways, and suburbs. Each part synthesizes some familiar and some not-so-familiar material into a fascinating interpretation of the development of the ordinary American built landscape in the twentieth century. The book deals with various attempts to develop new "protocols" for development in the three realms.
In the realm of landscape, for example, Easterling describes the work of Benton MacKaye, a visionary planner who tried to synthesize issues of transportation, landscape and settlement, and who was connected with a circle of left-leaning planners and thinkers who tried to visualize, decades before it again became fashionable, whole ecological systems of settlement.
The author goes into great detail about how MacKaye envisioned such an ecological system with the Appalachian Trail at the center of a complex system of settlement, power distribution, and transportation.
A corresponding story about highways describes various proposals for sophisticated interchanges among different forms of transportation—and how such proposals were ultimately squelched by the adoption of only a few simple interchanges for the interstate highway system.
Likewise, the Federal Housing Administration, through its guidelines for mortgage insurance, effectively mandated a few simple layouts for suburban developments, thereby rejecting more sophisticated and effective schemes that had been put forward by different designers.
The story therefore shows continuities between landscape, highways, and houses. From one point of view it is the story of the relationship between design and politics, and how the protocols that might have guided a healthy development of the modern American landscape met a bureaucratic fate and were ignored or transformed into more expedient rules. One strength of the book is its demonstration of the balance between visionary ideas and built reality, and the reader comes away with a heightened appreciation of both.
Through an interesting set of historical interpretations, Easterling demonstrates the underlying political and economic forces that have acted as the real forces that have determined the physical built form of the United States.
By intertwining original historical text with the author's own analysis, in a graphic format that utilizes three different kinds of text woven together, Organization Space demonstrates the possibilities of the sorts of interactions among ideas that many of the planners and thinkers described in the book tried to espouse.
Howard Davis is department editor for Building Culture at ArchitectureWeek, the author of The Culture of Building (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999), and professor of architecture at the University of Oregon.