The Daily Heller: The Reality and Mythology of American Transport

Posted inThe Daily Heller

From a New Yorker’s point of view, the open road is an escape route for those fleeing the city on holidays and weekends, most frequently in summertime. Until I was a teenager, the only roads I traversed were the Long Island Expressway (Robert Moses’ folly) and the Southern State Parkway (East to Long Island and back again). As an only child sitting in the backseat of our 1955 two-tone Oldsmobile 88, I never gave these paved expanses much notice, other than the fact that they led us from one place (our home) to another (someone else’s home), and later the modest family ranch house my parents bought for a song. For all I knew, those stretches of asphalt were always there. I never thought that, per the subtitle of Daniel Kaven’s excellent book Architecture of Normal, those highways, freeways, causeways and parkways represented “The Colonization of the American Landscape.” And during those days of ignorance it wasn’t until we turned off an exit ramp that I realized these roads existed to allow roadside commerce, American style, to flourish and define the nation.

I wasn’t born when the 1939 New York World’s Fair introduced Norman Bel Geddes’ Magic Motorways, a treatise about how America’s destiny as a powerhouse was ensured by its transportation systems. Anyone who traveled was, without knowing it, a colonialist, pushing forward without realizing that it would uproot many of the people who lived in the path of progress, or force them further into the hinterlands.

The book traces the impact that evolving modes of transportation—from horse to buggy to train to automobile—have had on the built environment throughout history, using the American Southwest as a case study. Kaven explores the relationship between the grandiose project of American frontierism and the mundane architectural typologies (strip malls, big box stores, parking garages, motels, tract housing) that have grown from our insatiable ambition for progress. He asks how these structures constitute much of what is considered “normal” architecture in this country.

Kaven, who is co-founder of the multidisciplinary studio William / Kaven Architecture, has assembled an enticing visual narrative that includes extensive historical photography, architecture commentary, personal anecdote and original art. It serves as a critical travelogue of what the world accepts as the American landscape, but leaves the door open for further debate over whether it is a dream-scape or nightmare.

Posted inThe Daily Heller