I recently revisited a favourite TED talk: The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs. It’s a funny and irreverent rant by James Howard Kuntsler about how North Americans have given up on public spaces, how we’ve forgotten (or discarded) the building blocks of civic design.
Kuntlser provides a wake-up call, explaining that well-designed public spaces are the foundation of civic wellbeing. Unfortunately, most of the population doesn’t realize the impact that the loss of care and craftsmanship – purposeful design – is having on our collective psyche.
Kuntsler explains that the, “…ability to create places that are meaningful and places of quality and character depends entirely on your ability to define space with buildings, and to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are.” So, in North America, what does our architecture and design say about our collective identity, our hopes and dreams and ideals?
With vast deserts of suburban streets, windowless schools that look like prisons, big box super stores instead of the traditional main street and endless highways, we've become a nation of filled with places not to care about. “We have about…38,000 places that are not worth caring about in the United States today. When we have enough of them, we're going to have a nation that's not worth defending.” He’s speaking about the US but he might as well be talking about Canada.
What I love so much about this talk is that he brings weight and importance to the aesthetic. Sustainability, quality of life, isolation, the pandemic of depression that’s ripping through our continent – this is what’s at stake for Kuntlser. Where some see these places not to care about as having limited impact on our lives, he sees destruction: “…if there is one great catastrophe about the places that we've built, the human environments we've made for ourselves in the last 50 years, it is that it has deprived us of the ability to live in a hopeful present.”
The talk is both heart breaking and inspiring and I know it will change the way you see towns, cities, public spaces and suburban architecture. If you’re in the mood for more humorous rants about the “non-articulated agony of suburbia,” follow up this talk with the blog McMansion Hell.