Carl Bingham never deployed overseas with his Tank unit. Most likely, because it was too close to the end of the war, but possibly because he was more valuable developing tests that certified the mental state of army personnel. Years later, while back at his alma mater in Princeton, he helped identify civilian applications for those military tests.
Remember the anxiety you felt in senior year; the defeat you experienced from that rejection letter and your parents’ disappointment in you? You can blame the military for it. The SATs were created in 1926 to test future college students in the same way they had done with soldiers before.
Post-WWI years read like a rollercoaster. Europe shifted from empires to republics or constitutional monarchies. Turkey as the center of the powerful Ottoman empire transformed into a secular, Western country. Modernist ideas in architecture eased the adoption of industrial aesthetics and incorporated advances in engineering. Brutal Socialist regimes swallowed up half of Europe, China and most of Southeast Asia. The Depression at home and the oppression of the Versailles Treaty in Europe fuelled the rise of Fascism, paved the way to the carnage and unfathomable cruelty of World War II and saw almost every country that was still held as a colony, gain independence.
The previous is an obviously incomplete attempt to fit 50 years of history in one paragraph. That is, however, how it must have felt: as an impossibly heavy burden with too many transcendental events moving by at warp speed, all at once. The deadly Spanish Flu pandemic that killed between 50 and 60 million people surely did not help.
This may seem like heavy stuff, but bear with me as I explain what it has to do with the exploration of Place, that you are used to from Proud Places.
The vertiginous speed of it all, accelerated aspects of life such as highways, communications infrastructure and the automotive industry. They saw large sums of money thrown at them, both public and private. Most were associated with national defense. Wartime innovations were adopted and started to be mass produced for millions of new consumers who had access to enormous amounts of secured and guaranteed cash from the government.
Research & Development made by, and for the Military, gave us faster engines, better airplanes, smoother tires and roads. It gave us the Internet, Call Of Duty and Mario Kart, and even those dumb facial recognition apps that give you puppy ears and a tongue.
Those innovations ensured you could keep working from home during the pandemic, too.
Living in a society where most of the big things around us come from Military innovations, can make social systems a little bit of a quaint offshoot of Military ethos. I’m going to focus on the standardization of the built environment as a means of reducing the friction of people and their surroundings, but also as a way of reducing the need for exploration, questioning and finding innovative solutions to the problem of place.
We’re all familiar with the mind-numbing landscape of car-centric urban America and the problematic nature of the way we have built our cities and towns. What we might not have given much thought to, is how breaking from molds and looking at local solutions might bring a highly rewarding outcome.
The hierarchical nature of an army requires that orders are passed, and understood, through all ranks in a timely and precise manner. To ensure that processes are glitch-free, they must be standardized, forms must be simplified and any hint of ornament and uniqueness must be eliminated to warrant predictable outcomes.
Sounds almost like National chains, if you think of it. And Interstate crossings. And malls. And subdivisions. And sprawl. Pretty much everything we build today.
Sadly, it also sounds like some institutions and practices we hold dear, regardless of their success: historic building conservation, Placemaking, construction technology and other industries that shape the built environment have also become standardized and in that process, we have lost local flavor, ornamentation and any sense of uniqueness.
Quirky does a city good. When every intervention of the built environment nationwide complies in one way or another with standards and follows preset recipes, the unique characteristics of place, that give its identity and motivate the locals to be proud, are lost. Especially when those recipes are the same for 329 million people, from tropical Florida to mountainous Wyoming; from sunny Arizona to urbanized New Jersey.
It’s all very easy to navigate. We must give the system credit for that. But it’s boring. It is unchallenging. Which can make it unsettling, for its lack of discovery and surprise. We need all those things to keep ourselves engaged with our surroundings.
As several urban theorists such as Jan Gehl, Aldo Rossi and Nikos Salingaros have pointed out, and architect-neuroscientist Ann Sussman has measured, our brain is hardwired to see faces and have constant stimulation. Our brain doesn’t see or hear, it is our eyes and ears who do and relay the data to the brain. And the way our eyes and ears function is by detecting and processing light or sound waves. To achieve this, the patterns in waves must be of a certain bandwidth and frequency. Our systems are built to detect detail, repetition, rhythm and scale.
It is no coincidence that cities, as they had evolved until the early 20th century, were progressive iterations of the unspoken wisdom of human habitat-building. We made our cities as bees make their hives: by improving incrementally on proven successes. Buildings, streets and open spaces were made for our five senses to understand and process. They were created for humans to communicate with their surroundings and with each other.
Experts were not needed either. Citymaking was shared wisdom and every new attempt at growth followed a previous success story. When the incredible advances in engineering and military technology of the turn of the 20th century met with Modernist architects who openly questioned the value of previous success stories and were enabled by an ethos of changing Nature by legislative action, politicians, designers and narrators emerged as the messengers of a new world.
They flattened the curves, reduced the bandwidth and established a minimum common denominator to make sure the message was understood through the ranks in a timely and precise manner. The lifeless, alien, detached urban spaces of contemporary cities and towns, are the physical manifestation of those values.
The present we are so desperately trying to change is the future they have created. Most changes we want to see in society will only be realized by a radical shift in policy and the rejection of failed ways of seeing the world that were “new” 100 years ago, but now are faded and kept alive by stubbornness and fear.
There are, however, things we can do locally to create conditions that will guarantee the strengthening of identity and an increase in pride. As with most global problems, the solutions are local.
Maybe smaller, but definitely stronger economies trading in global chains, made up of local links. Healthier folks who consume seasonal products that are farmed nearby and delivered with love. Accountable politicians, who have to look us in the eye when we cross them on Main Street. Dedicated small developers, who care for the building stock and their community, and reuse as many buildings or parts of buildings as humanly possible. Entrepreneurs who bet on their towns to embrace their ideas and walk beside them as they grow. Local teachers who transmit practical knowledge. Local manufacturers with short supply chains. Local farmers who know the soil and local tradesmen, who know the native materials they work with. Local spiritual leaders with skin in the game. A global world to learn from and collaborate with.
Farming, trading, building and the rest are, if you think of it, circular systems part of a holistic worldview. Quite the opposite of the linear, hierarchical military ethos. If you’re wondering what to do to break the cycle, the best advice I can think of is: from whatever place you’re in, become a strong local link, create with passion and project what you do to the world with decision.