April 12, 2009

Unlike the WPA, this stimulus won't produce any beauty

Back during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration gave lots of people jobs to erect buildings in the then-popular Art Deco style, including lowly public high schools. To take just a handful of high schools that look like this, consider Will Rogers, Ogden, Venice, Berkeley, and Kensington.

They're not just nice to look at -- as high schools, they easily outshine the Modernist ghost-town schools of the post-WWII era, although depending on your taste, they might not meet the high standard set by the various revival style schools built between roughly 1890 and 1930. No matter what, you'd love to have one in your neighborhood for your kids to go to.

Of course, this time around, the construction industry is employing too many unskilled, illiterate Central American peasants for buildings of such high quality to come out the other end of a federal money injection. And even if only native-born, skilled Americans were working in construction, the industry doesn't give a shit anymore about high-quality materials or pleasing ornaments, by and large. So don't expect plaster walls, terra cotta details above the main entrance, or terrazzo floors.

I make a sport out of needling social conservatives who think the world is going to hell, simply by digging up a bunch of data showing that people are behaving better than ever before. But these data are all about what the majority of people are up to -- once you look only at the cultural elite, you can easily find signs of decay. One is schoolhouse architecture, and that is by no means the only example within architecture. It's no accident that preservationists strive to keep drive-in theaters or diners from the 1950s and '60s intact, while not caring whether the school buildings from the same period, that resemble barren airport terminals, were turned into a bunch of Starbucks.

Hopefully the efforts of preservationists will make sure that pre-WWII schools, after renovation, will continue on. Then again, "They'll probably knock it down soon."


  1. Did you see Steve Sailer's piece on the new arts high school in Downtown Los Angeles? It may not be a thing of beauty, but it's certainly distinctive.


  2. I know little about architecture except my own personal aesthetics, but I agree that over the 20th century, like most all artisanship in America, architectural aesthetics have fallen upon the alter of assembly-line building construction subject to economies of scale.

    Housing developments and condos are the penultimate product of market effects, the Henry Ford model. With slapdash construction and plastered with a veneer of feeble attempts at class such as false brick or rock fascia, they pretend at upwardly mobile. This is image culture in lieu of substance.

    When one travels, one can see the changes in this over time by the age of a city. As we settled westward the beauty of artisan construction was subsumed by efficiency.

    On the West coast where I reside, I really miss old and beautiful buildings. Here, most were modern or later and it is a sharp contrast to East Coast Cities. In middle American most structures were more humble, yet quaint and had retained sturdiness and utility. Porches are common and often wraparound and partially screened.

    Like most artisanship, this was a male province, that of the utilitarian tradesmen. This too has been sacrified to a celebrity culture where a few men are celebrated for their ornamental nature, versus their utiltiy, productivity and civic participation, while the rest of men are spurned as worse than useless. The dark side of the "you go girl" coin is "as if you could man."

    You emasculate man when you deny him his utility. His individuality is replaced by dependence. He comes to rely on a system and loses his knowledge and soon must pay for everything. He is indentured to corporate paymasters and must sacrifice his time to earn the money to pay companies to do much of what he formerly did for himself. He is reduced to nothing more than a walking wallet, and the full spectrum of his productivity is available to the system. An artisan's craft gives him continuity of earnings and an area of mastery where he is alpha. He often apprentices for his knowledge and enters independence zero debt and decent earning potential. He also has value in that the time he does exchange for money will pay a good rate, his skill brings negotiating power as others need him. He is not easily replaceable.

    Contrast this with today where education comes at high cost and associated debt and with few exceptions pays salaries guaranteed to keep you that way. Despite your expensive degree, you are a commodity and are easily replaceable so your continuity of payment is good, but continuity of earnings, and bargaining power are poor. The corporation or even small business is the superior "person" today, and the means to success in the US. It is no accident the greatest value owned by the wealthy in the US is business equity, not stock, bonds or real estate.

    Until we men regain our utility and independence, and make our financial health more important than our appearance thereof, we will not truly recover economically, and recapture some of our own productivity back.

    Domestic production by artisans will bring a return to both aesthetic considerations, and community cohesiveness. These former male qualities: artisanship, independence, utility, and civic duty are what made America great, and what we have tragically lost.


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