A comment that I left at this post on "How to Create a Beautiful City" over at Uncouth Reflections:
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The main source of awful public spaces is sociological and demographic rather than technological or artistic — the transplant phenomenon.
When you are born in a place, live there your whole life, will raise any children you have in that place, and your ancestors stretch back into the past in that place, you feel a level of respect for its natural and built environment. They are not completely inviolable, but altering them willy-nilly is taboo.
It is part of you and you are part of it. You would no more alter its substance and appearance than you would your own — some cosmetic things here and there, maybe a knee replacement if your original one gets too banged up, but never anything major and frivolous like a sex change operation.
When a place draws most of its population from transplants, or people whose roots go back no further than a single generation, its features are not treated as sacred. They’re just neat things that earlier waves of transplants found it fit to build in their day, but which we might not find so neat in our day, and may very well have to erase and replace to suit the living rather than the dead (those two being alien to each other when transplant-ism is the norm).
That’s the basic weakness — not feeling that the natural and built environment are sacred. It lets you treat the whole city like one great big Lego bucket or dollhouse for playing around with, to dress it up in one artificial identity or another.
If you’re lucky, the prevailing fashions will give the city Art Deco rather than the International Style or the International Style: The Sequel. But trying to analyze the differences at the technical level, and propose policies that could steer architecture back toward good ol’ Art Deco, is missing the big picture — that the constant demographic churning makes it impossible to hold something in place. You are reduced to trying to argue for why Art Deco should make a comeback in the fashion cycle, why the neo-Mies look is like so tired by 2015.
That’s why rural towns tend not to be so afflicted by all the things that trad architecture folks decry. They are not being constantly swamped by wave after wave of transplants bringing their own outside ideas and inclinations about what would make for a totally awesome city, as though it were wet clay rather than a living organism.
And that’s why some cities show greater levels of affliction than other cities. As much as New York transplants may always be complaining about “there goes the neighborhood,” the city and its population is deeper rooted than a place like Houston or Phoenix.
How do you keep the transplant invasion at bay? The trick is to not host the institutions that draw status-strivers — globally competitive industries (Wall Street, Hollywood), globally competitive cultural institutions (Harvard, Sundance Film Festival), and so on and so forth.
Trad architecture misses these larger points because most of the critics are striving transplants themselves. They want to have their competitive career and the wealth and creature comforts it affords, while preserving their adopted city’s traditional character. But the two are incompatible. You can choose one end of the trade-off spectrum or the other.
It would be best for the return of traditional, human-scale places to discourage the transplant phenomenon, to remind people that they’ll feel more connected to their place if they grew up there and haven’t seen it change radically. That creates a deeper and more enduring sense of belonging than shopping around for a city and tweaking its skin, as though you were purchasing a customized costume for a masquerade ball.