Most of the American built environment is not designed

Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues in Welcome to Your World that despite what we know about the importance of the built environment, few American environments are designed:

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Most of what we see from our windows or in our surroundings has been constructed, but it was not really designed in any but a rudimentary sense of the word. In the United States, 85 percent of new construction – whether it is a new bridge, an urban park, a housing development, or a school addition – is realized at the hands of construction firms collaborating with real estate developers or other private clients. Many of these buildings bypass designers (a catchall term for professionals involved in designing the built environment, including architects, landscape architects, interior architects, urban designers, city planners, civil engineers, and other sorts of civil servants) completely, or employ them only cursorily, to review and stamp their approval on drawings… (xxi)

Why is this the case?

In the United States and in most other parts of the world today, many people believe that engaging a highly trained design professional is an unnecessary expense. True, wealthy individuals and corporations with plenty of assets do buy design to add beauty or prestige, and public and private institutions aspiring to serve as cultural stewards hire trained, informed professionals for complex structures such as skyscrapers. But this is not the norm.

The reason aside from financial considerations is that most projects in the built environment are commissioned on the basis of and judged by two complementary standards. Safety first: building codes and legislation and inspectors enforce standards that ensure that our bridges and buildings and parks and cityscapes will withstand gravity and wind, will weather the vicissitudes of climate and the ravages of time, and that their smaller features, such as electrical systems and stairways ,will not shock or trip people up. Function next: people expect projects to serve an institution’s or private individual’s daily needs both effectively and efficiently, which often means with as little expenditure of resources – space, time, money – as possible. (xxii)

In other words, design and beauty and their effects on people and their interactions are not considered as much as they should be. An emphasis on safety, initial cost, and function shortchanges what the built environment could offer in the long run. Thus, Americans often get uninspiring buildings and places.

This reminds me of three similar arguments:

  1. James Howard Kunstler makes a similar argument about the American suburbs. Why would people care about such places that offer so little in terms of the built environment?
  2. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that public buildings and spaces could offer much to enhance community life if they were built with design and people in mind. For example, schools and libraries could be true gathering places that bring people together.
  3. Architect Sarah Susanka argues Americans do not need bigger homes but rather homes that are designed for them and that will enhance their life. Instead, the homes that Americans get – not designed by architects – are lifeless boxes.

Given the social forces at work leading to this, it would take substantial effort to have Americans value and employ better built environments.

One thought on “Most of the American built environment is not designed

  1. Pingback: Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing | Legally Sociable

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