The Architecture of Life: Designing and Building a Nation

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Designing and Building a Nation

I have been thinking of late of the similarities between building a home...and building a nation.

A nation is, after all, a society built for common defense - a set of agreements made by many - with the goal being to shelter their children and possessions from harm.

Which is the same rational my wife used when she decided we should put new carpet and a dishwasher in our little house in the mountains.

So with that metaphor in mind, I have decided to speculate on what architecture has to offer our political leaders; and conversely, what the political process of nation building has to offer to the practice of architecture.

This seems to me a rich vein to mine in an election year, so I think I will celebrate the beginning of 2008 with a series of posts that explore two simple questions:

"If you were going to design and build a nation from scratch, how could the experience of capable architects and builders inform its design?"

and second...

"What can architecture learn from the democratic political process that might help designers better serve the needs of their clients?"


It seems to me the best place to start is with definitions and "first principles."

Exploring such a metaphor is dangerous if you cannot define what elements of the fabric of a nation can be fairly compared to that of a building project.

I might end up comparing Hillary Clinton to a vacuum cleaner , or John McCain to a delapidated but reliable old HVAC system right at the outset, and my entire inquiry could dissolve into irrelevance.

It is perhaps true that one part of that metaphor might be applicable. After all, most politicians move a lot of air, often permeated with dirt and other impurities...but once you get past that surface similarity, the comparison falls flat.

There is no real evidence that Hillary would "clean up" America, nor that Senator McCain would "cool down" the political discourse in the nation.

So if we are going to commit ourselves to integrity in our search for any real solutions each domain of human activity has to offer the other, we must launch our inquest where all good stories must the beginning.

And that would be with a site examination. After all, no capable designer would begin a design without first assessing the characteristics of the site upon which that building - or that nation - will be constructed.

We all have some idea of the site upon which the construction of our nation was originally begun.

Geographically, it was the East coast of the North American continent. Culturally, the building site was dominated by British general contractors, with a variety of Dutch, French, Spanish, German, African and other secondary sub-contractors.

Politically, the building site was taken by force and political manipulation from an indigenous population who were overwhelmed by the superior business planning and acquisitiveness of the invading European nations.

Ideologically, it was born from the political history of Britain, but modified by the ideas of the time - which were in large part coming from French intellectuals.

Site acquisition followed a successful model already tested in South and Central America by the Spanish, and in Africa and Asia by a variety of earlier European real estate developers.

They used the same rational by which our government acquired the bulk of the state of New Mexico, a principle called "eminent domain."

As soon as native lands were eminent on the horizon - we decided they should be our domain.

So the site conditions on the land upon which the "land of the free" was built had a significant pitch to its grade. Things went uphill for the European settlers, and decidedly downhill for the existing native American inhabitants.

It was sort of like the "gentrification" of inner city neighborhoods close to downtown by upscale white professionals. Once it started, it was impossible to stop.

Thus, the American nation was built upon the typically opposing principles of self-interest and cooperation.

After all, our forefathers cooperated very effectively to clear the building site of features that did not meet their design criteria - for instance native Americans and a great portion of our nation's native forests.

They did that so they could make more money and build equity in their newly acquired real estate. However, some of their investments were short-sighted. The fact that less than 2% of California's giant redwoods exist today attests to that fact.

If the existing inhabitants did not have a good title, and there was quite a lot of mischief in that arena during the nations growth westward, well life is tough and then you die.

Those with the money and political swack would explain to the dispossessed homesteaders and native populations that it was just business. Nothing personal.

Not much difference between how it all began and how any other speculative real estate development begins in today's America.

So the creation of the United States could be seen as a series of somewhat risky subdivisions built out in the boonies by wildcat developers using the money of investors on the other side of the Atlantic who hadn't the slightest idea what kind of swampland they were financing.

When times were good, new towns and settlements sprung up like flowers in the Spring. When times were hard, they dried up and blew away like tumbleweeds. As the suburbs filled up with gated communities, the aging inner city neighborhoods deteriorated.

People either made huge profits or lost their buckskin shirts. Distress properties were bought for a song, then flipped for a quick profit. Smaller competitors were squeezed out and a lot of money changed hands under the table.

So nothing fancy. The development of America followed a pattern just like a typical day at work for many architects, builders and developers in Florida, California or New York City.

So what we have learned in this first post is that the building of our nation - and the practice of speculative real estate development - have a lot in common at first glance.

Both begin with acquiring land for a low price, and the aspiration to sell it for a high price.

That appears to have worked fine all across the continent until our founding developers ran into the Pacific Ocean - where except for sporadic forays into Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Southeast Asia and Iraq - we ran out of real estate.

Which explains why homes are so expensive in San Francisco.

It's all about location, location, location.

Next post in series here.