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    Geography of Nowhere/Death by Suburb: Critical Introduction

    December 10, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    My promiscuous reading habits have gotten the better of me. I was planning on an Ayn Rand marathon. I even published such a declaration on the blog here, which is the equivalent of writing in ink on a dayplanner. But before I could begin, I got a wishlist match on PBS. It was James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere, a book that has been on my master list for years. The fact that I was already reading Dave Goetz’s Death by Suburb made the timing seem all the more perfect.

    So far, Kunstler puts Goetz to shame, in the sense that Goetz is revealed to have very little understanding of what suburbs are really all about, or why they were invented at all. I know that Goetz was writing more for the layman, while Kunstler is social critic writing about architecture, but it still seems that Goetz is lacking a certain foundation and understanding, evident in the almost silly prose he uses. I don’t want to be heartless here, but generally the writers within the Spiritual Formation Movement {guys like Dallas Willard excepted, of course} are like certain political figures I’ve discussed here before: they sound impressive, philosophical even, until you realize they are completely lacking in substance.

    Goetz’s main problem is his inability to grasp metaphor and symbolism, while Kunstler has the ability in spades. What we create in the world–art, achitecture, song, etcetera–has meaning attached to it. There is something that is being said, some idea being represented. Suburbs aren’t just suburbs. We don’t need Kunstler, but just some time spent in deliberate thought, to understand that suburbs represent all sort of things–a desire for the rich to be separate from the poor to the extent that they never have to see each other, a desire for an environment that is safe and controllable, and so on. Kunstler sums some of this up when he writes, simply, “[Suburbs] arose from the idea, rather peculiar to America, that neither the city nor the country was really a suitable place to live.”

    I’m not close to finished with either book, so perhaps there will be a surprising turn-around at the end. I am completely open to that.

    I will, as usual, be sharing quotes as I go along. In fact, here is something we read just last night, which is a basic explanation of why socialism breeds ugly architecture:

    With [the Bauhaus’] utopian-revolutionary program, it presumed to represent the interests of the workers; its only client was the state and it soon got into the business of designing public housing projects. In the Bauhaus scheme of things a worker was someone with no aspirations, who had no dream of rising to a “better” position, because in the coming democratic-socialist utopia there would be no such thing as a better position. All positions would be equal. A Faguswerk janitor would be as esteemed as an architect, and perhaps equally remunerated. It was an absurb belief, and naturally it put the utopians in a box, which is exactly what Bauhaus architecture looked like: boxes.

    The aesthetic-social dogmas of the Bauhaus were wildly reductive. Anything but a flat roof was verboten, because towers, cupolas, et cetera, symbolized the crowns worn by monarchs. Anything but an absolutely plain sheer facade was show-offy and, worse, dishonest, because it disguised a building’s true structure. Ornament was a voluptuary indulgence only the rich could afford, and in the coming utopia there would be no rich people, or everybody would be equally rich, or equally poor, or something like that, so ornament was out. Color was banned. The postwar avant-garde scaled new heights of puritanism.

    Update (i):

    I spent some time re-reading {this post was a scheduled post, not something I whipped out this morning after four cups of coffee} parts of Death by Suburb yesterday afternoon. I’m going to have to do a number of posts on where it falls short. However, I thought I’d add a bit here, to round out my criticism of Goetz a bit. I don’t mean to imply that he has no understanding of suburbs. After all, he lives in one, experiences it daily. But he seems to see the suburbs though a one-way lens. What I mean is, he sees only the effect of the suburb:

    [T]he environment of the suburbs weathers one’s soul peculiarly. That is, there are environmental variables, mostly invisible, that oxidize the human spirit, like what happens to the metal of an ungaraged car.

    And later:

    The suburbs tend to produce inverse spiritual cripples. Suburbia is a flat world, in which the edges are clearly defined and the mysterious ocean is rarely explored.

    The problem is that Goetz goes on to throw his hands in the air and surrender the issue before he has explored it:

    The muddy river of suburban life cannot be stopped. It simply is. The muddy river of illusion cannot be escaped, really. There’s not much use in moralizing about it…

    Goetz is treating the idea of suburban life as a given, a fact of nature. But if one reads the first few chapters of Kunstler, one immediately realizes two important facts that make suburbia very much worth “moralizing about” and critiquing: {1} the idea of suburbia is less than one hundred years old, making it a new concept, the consequences of which we are just now able to observe, and {2} culture is not a one-way street. Kunstler has a thorough understanding of how the worldviews of architects have been expressed in the types of buildings we build, the types of cities we plan, and so one.

    Suburbia begins and ends with an idea. It is not like a desert or a rain forest, which God created, and so we discuss how to live within what already is. I’m not saying it is wrong to try to survive suburbia. I am not saying that suburbia is sinful. I am saying Goetz begins in the wrong place. He doesn’t begin with the idea of suburbia, and so I’m not sure that he can fully develop his solutions, even if they are good ones, for he will lack an appreciation of how they relate to the underlying problem.

    In essence, I restate my assertion that Goetz is lacking in a certain type of depth. Since he is the Christian, and Kunstler is the secularist {from what I can tell thus far}, I was more than slightly disappointed.

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  • Reply Brandy December 14, 2008 at 11:21 pm


    I would love to hear your thoughts on it! I am still working through all the issues in these books. Geography of Nowhere has a lot more meat in it, and is actually helping me find the answer to one of the questions, which is why suburbia is a target in the first place. For Kunstler, it is a target because he doesn’t consider it a place in the traditional sense of the word. He believes a place is something that contains a community, which would include civic, social, religious, etc. aspects, including work. Because suburbs are generally places to live that are disconnected from places to work, he disapproves. I’m not saying he’s right, but that is his take. Another reason for targeting suburbia is that it tends to be symbolic of affluence in general.

    My personal opinion on the criticisms you brought up are:

    1. Suburbs aren’t necessarily ugly, especially the ones built more recently. I do like Kunstler’s point that our surroundings flow from our worldview, so the architecture flowing out of our culture is telling us something about ourselves.

    2. It might be more apt to say that suburbs are made possible by cars. No one in their right mind would live so far from their work if not for cars. Here where I live (Central California), my car is very important to me. I could walk all day and never get anywhere. However, I have come to understand Kunstler’s animosity towards cars a bit more: apparently the federal government highly subsidized them in the beginning. There is a lot of detail he goes into in his book concerning cars and how they were able to take over our landscape the way they did.

    3. I agree that the loss of community isn’t unique to the suburbs. In fact, that is part of what annoys me with Death by Suburb; Goetz seems to think that his angst is somehow unique to him and his environment. Going back to the car, I think that it is the modern technologies like the car and the television, with their corresponding architecture like attached garages and media rooms, that have done more to destroy community in the last hundred years. Suburbs are a byproduct of these technolgies in many ways, but cities and towns and isolated mountain homes have also been changed. In the next hundred years, the culprits will likely be new postmodern technologies like cell phones, text messaging, and the like, which keep people from being truly present in their environments, which is to say that, when such techonologies are allowed free reign, they erode community even further.

    I don’t mind you taking up space on my blog at all! You are welcome anytime… 🙂

  • Reply Sherry December 14, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I would really like to read more of your thoughts on these two books and on suburbia in general. I live in what I call Major Suburbia, and I just don’t see how the city or the small town or the country better places to live or more soul-fulfilling or more nourishing to the spiritual or physical life of people. I’ve heard these criticisms:

    1. The suburbs are ugly.
    And the cities are not ugly? What about rural places that have been trashed and uglified and sometimes burnt (California) and otherwise populated by actual people? People living in a place, even spread out as they are in rural areas, tend to make at least parts of that place ugly.

    2, The suburbs are dominated by cars.
    Modern life is dominated by cars. If not cars, then subways and other modes of fast transportation. Rural living involves a LOT of driving in cars for most people in the U.S. So what are you going to do? Outlaw cars?

    3. People don’t know each other in the suburbs. There’s no sense community.
    Again, this loss of community is not unique to suburbia.

    Anyway, I probably need to read the books and then write about it on my own blog instead of taking up so much space on yours. But this is a subject that I am interested in, but I never have understood why the target is suburbia.

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