by: Michael Shields
Challenging the American Dream with the aid of the Buell Hypothesis….
“It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
A home, owned in full, or a mortgage that isn’t too large a cross to bear. A wife, or husband, of course and two, possible three, children that all get along swimmingly with the dog, a golden retriever. They even ride it from time to time. He doesn’t seem to mind. Enclosing the yard is a white picket fence, fresh coat of paint from the past Saturday. Little Bobby helped. In the back yard is a swing-set, a ‘Swing-N-Slide Brentwood’, top of the line, best that money could buy, safest too. In the driveway sits a Maroon Toyota Sienna, four cylinder – who would need 6 anyways, and a Volvo C30, for dad. Stock options and yearly bonuses keep rolling in regardless of how the company is doing. What more could anyone ever ask for?
I can think of a couple things.
The American Dream has never really been my cup of tea1. It never made sense to me. Maybe the world has shrunk over the last couple decades so that I, unlike generations prior who seem to have bought into the idea of the American Dream intimately, see the problems and needs of the human race more clearly. With that recent insight made possible through technology and shared information how can the blind pursuit of your own self interest and desires be the end all be all? How does this consumptive me-first attitude provide for the well being of your children and their children with the daunting realities present in today’s world? I read a quote by the author and economist Jeremy Rifkin that sums up this point better than I can. He said:
“You can’t have 6.8 billion cowboys out there and begin to think about bringing the species together in a global economy and a global biosphere.”
The American Dream is not a sustainable intelligent vision. The needs of the many are left out of the utopian backyard. And I have never witnessed, in all my days, a direct correlation between happiness and prosperity.
I bring up the American Dream and my discontent with it not to arouse any Anti-American sentiment or to bag on the dream in itself. At its core the American Dream is hopeful. Hell, it’s even inspiring because at its center the idea is that with freedom, and inalienable rights for EVERYONE, we all have the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work2. And I don’t have a problem with the hokey uninspired variation of the American Dream we all have come to love and be embarrassed by; as if someone wants the house3 an hour outside of the city, with the Chili’s and Starbucks right around the corner, they can have it, more for me where I’m at – far away from all that. And possibly one day my attitude will change and you will see me in line for a half-caf mocha latte at Starbucks after scarfing down some chicken club quesadillas.
No, I bring it up here today as a recent exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art4 had my head spinning so much so I returned to examine its message further. The exhibit, a full corner of the fourth floor, is entitled ‘Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream’. The backbone on the exhibit is a piece of work called ‘The Buell Hypothesis’, a masterfully researched paper by Reinhold Martin and his colleagues at Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. The Buell Hypothesis, in their own words and at its most basic, argues as follows:
Change the dream and you change the city. The private house and the city or suburb in which it is situated share a common destiny. Hence, if you change the narratives guiding suburban housing (such as that of the American Dream) and the priorities they imply—including spatial arrangements, ownership patterns, the balance between public and private interests, and the mixtures of activities and services that any town or city entails—then you begin the process of redirecting suburban sprawl.
During summer 2011, five teams of designers (including architects, urban planners, and landscape architects), economists, ecologists, and engineers—led by the principals of the architecture firms MOS, Visible Weather, Studio Gang Architects, WORKac, and Zago Architecture—began a cross-disciplinary conversation, imagining the redesign of specific sites across the country, from older east coast suburbs with rail connections to newer subdivisions accessible only by highway. Working in studios at MoMA PS1, they discussed their projects with the public in a series of open houses. Their work, presented here, is not a set of blueprints for the development of specific places so much as an array of visions that will help us rethink the physical and financial architecture of living, working, and commuting in the extended metropolis.
Presented to the viewing public at the MOMA are a series of models re-imagining the ways in which we could be cohabiting the world, ways in which we possibly should be. Each model looks much like the structural design of a city in many a sci-fi films imagining, proving something so obvious and disconcerting: that sci-fi authors have the capability of thinking outside the box and looking forward in a way the politicians of our day cannot, or will not.
The different models include infrastructure additions that seem too rational and essential to not be in tact already; indispensable items such as recycling centers, co-generating electrical plants, light rails, and even gardens for people to grow their own food. They display structures that could house families or groups of all shapes and sizes as that is the reality of the situation. The nuclear family is a thing of the past and possibly never truly existed. Life is not that simple and frankly never has been.
These models are examples of the type of communities we should be demanding! Furthermore the designers, and capable minds like them, should be in positions to make decisions in regards to planning5. With great talent and intelligence SHOULD come great responsibility.
I am of a generation where many in my age group have a little change in their pocket. They, too, have procreated and need some more space. They need an alternative to the apartments that have sufficed prior to life’s little miracles and changes. But what options are there? We have been handed, in terms of fulfillment of these needs, a suburbs scrawled across the landscape with profit in mind rather than the things that truly matter. We were handed a culture dependent on the quantity of housing rather than community. And, we have been handed a suburbs that lack the intelligent design necessary to maintain environmental sustainability, social interaction, and dare I stretch to say, lacking a soul.
We were sold a faulty dream. But it is our own failing if we do not make an attempt to actually change that dream to meet the needs of all of us moving forward. We have brilliant ideas in circulation, everywhere. Ones that can lay the blueprints to a promising future. Heck, all you have to do is head to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see for yourself.
If we can change the dream we can, possibly, change reality.
- If I am not mistaken it, symbolically, died with Gatsby’s death anyways. [↩]
- Naive to truly believe this is the case in the good ole US of A as constructed today, or ever was or will be I suppose. [↩]
- I believe there is a sentiment out there that one should own land, that you are not successful otherwise. Hard for me to buy into this as well. Seems to me some macho Manifest Destiny bullsh*t. [↩]
- Also, the Cindy Sherman exhibit is remarkable. Worth a trip to NY from wherever you may be. She cray. [↩]
- In an ideal world, of course – I am not ignorant to what it takes to put a man in office and knowledge of the working systems that will sustain life in perpetuate aren’t atop the list. [↩]