Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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September 05, 2007
architecture to die for

While I skimmed a recent magazine article about urban residents' life expectancy and health, I was stopped cold by a sentence that claimed:

A 2002 study by the National Institutes of Health found that people living in buildings built before 1973 were significantly more likely to walk one-mile distances than those living in areas with newer architecture -- because their environments were less architecturally ugly.

At last! Here was the proof.

Post-1973, ugly American architecture kills people!

Below are links to images of some residential buildings in the USA, all built in 1973.

The East Tower of Reserve Square, Cleveland

Riverside Plaza, Minneapolis

Seward Park Houses Extension, New York City

Waterside Plaza, New York City (1973-74)

Beware of these buildings!

Their ugliness will kill you.

An alternate title for a much longer version (which follows) of the above post could be,

Stuff I've been misreading lately

The alternate title would in part be an homage to Nick Hornby's always fun column.

The alternate title would be also an honest admission of my lazy mental habits and lack of reading comprehension skills. As previously noted, when presented with a new piece of reading material, I often jump to hasty conclusions about what the piece will say -- and get it horribly wrong.

Why do I mess up like this? Well, it's a busy world. Who has time to gather full facts before making an assessment? Not "me."

I'll often only glance at a title, subtitle or illustrations, or skim the opening paragraphs or pullquotes. I go by first impressions.

My policy is to reach out to gather empirical evidence only until I have enough data to reconfirm my personal biases, then I stop. And my blind spots are humungous. My reflexes are conditioned to form countless snap judgments, though ones I rarely acknowledge, because they almost always fall below the threshold of my conscious awareness.

I probably do this when "sizing up" human beings too. Shameful and inexcusable but true.

My misreadings usually stay unnoticed unless I am forced to go back to look at how blinkered and hasty I was.

So, when I

Or at least the "I" that is the fragmentary, exaggerated persona I lapse into mimicking, when doing this blog
(the word, I believe, is "shtick")

(I blame the technology)]
when I begin to read something new, in a flash, I'll have half-consciously composed in my head the finished piece of writing that I expect or hope to uncover on the page/screen. My fantasy creation may bear no relation to the actual piece in front of me, which I may or may not even bother to finish.

Sometimes, when I overcome my natural laziness and read to the end of something new, I am disappointed to discover that the imaginary piece that I, at the outset, sketched out would have been more interesting to read than was the real, freshly read one.

However, usually, once I get started reading something, I get immersed and automatically forget within a few seconds the imaginary, alternate piece that I half-"wrote" in my imagination.

There's a positive side to my bad habit. My hasty and overly judgmental imagination enables me to double my reading productivity. Much of what I read has a shadow counterpart of my own creation that hovers behind it. So, I get to "read" both texts, in a way.

Did I say "double" my productivity? No, sometimes, it's more than that. To jump to a lone conclusion is often too easy. Why stop there? If the new material that I'm trying to read is something particularly obscure or difficult to understand, my brain may half-wittingly ricochet or pinball around multiple times within the heteroglossia before I reach the end. My feverish, confused brain will generate several unfurling ribbons of fantasy text, each of which represents the direction that I think the author might go next with whatever portion of the piece I have yet to read.

So, the latest misread item is the sentence about the architeture of 1973, reproduced above.

The sentence contains so much.

More important, the sentence contains so little -- leaving plenty of room for preconception and fantasy to go to work.

The most important instinct to develop here is the one that tells you exactly when to stop your ears, stop gathering information, and divert or slam shut the conversation before you are proven wrong.

This instinct is dramatized in what may be Charles Schultz's most perceptive "Peanuts" comic strip, or at least the installment that struck me as the most accurate about the operations of the world, when I was a kid.

The strip does not seem currently to appear in graphic form on-line. So I will describe it.

The scene opens on an enraged Violet, who is chasing Charlie Brown around the neighborhood and announcing that she intends to clobber him.

A few panels in, Charlie stops running. He stands his ground and confronts his pursuer.

Charlie Brown then reasons with Violet as follows, over the course of several cartoon panels:

Wait a minute! Hold everything!

We can't carry on like this! We have no right to act this way . . .

The world is filled with problems . . . people hurting other people . . . people not understanding other people . . .

Now, if we, as children, can't solve what are relatively minor problems, how can we ever expect to . . .


[Violet interrupts Charlie Brown with a punch that sends him spiralling]

In the final panel, Charlie Brown is flattened, and Violet explains to Peppermint Patty:

I had to hit him quick . . . He was beginning to make sense!

A dip into Fantagraphic's The Complete Peanuts establishes that this installment of the strip appeared on Sunday, August 4, 1963.

Our little sentence is delightful because it allows the mind spontaneously to pen at least three different, imaginary sidebars.

For example: What an NIH study that must have been! I instantly leapt ahead to outline it in my imagination.

And "architectually ugly." We all know what that means, right? Sure we do. We all agree. My mind's eye spontaneously began to produce a photo spread of the murderous, health-suppressing buildings.

I like the sentence best because of its word, "because." That hint of causation flatters my secret belief that whether the world at large conforms itself to my personal, narcissistic, aesthetic biases is literally a matter of life and death -- for everybody else.

According to the sentence that caught my eye, the NIH now promised me scienfitic proof that, if other people refuse to live in buildings that TiR considers architecturally pretty, those people will DIE. My belief thus was reaffirmed: How much happier everyone else would be if they simply did things my way, in every capacity.

Could it really be so simple?

The "1973" certainly sounded simple. So specific. A perfect detail to make my belief more believable.

But I wondered: What is it about the architecture of 1973 and thereafter in the USA that makes it so fatal?

Why did the USA's buildings decide to become killers, starting in that year?

And is it true that they kill through ugliness alone? Through an ugliness that seems to entrap their residents forever inside the homes, by preying on the inhabitants' apparently delicate aesthetic sensibilities?

The entrapment would mirror de Maupassant's explanation for why he liked to eat lunch at the restaurant inside his hated Eiffel Tower, according to the first paragraph of Barthes essay on that structure:
It's the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it.

What if the tower were too ugly for de Maupassant to ever stop eating lunch, to ever exit the tower?

Apparently, had the Eiffel Tower been built after 1973 in the USA, such would have been the fate of de Maupassant.

I set out to find the NIH study.

[By "set out" I mean, of course, "surfed the internet."]

In January 2003, the Washington Times ran an article on a study that sounds like the one in question here.

The Times sourced it to an August 2002 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

A review of the abstracts in that issue of AJPM shows our study seemingly to be "The Association between Urban Form and Physical Activity in U.S. Adults" by Dr. David Berrigan and Dr. Richard Troiano. Both doctors are affiliated with the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the NIH.

The article's abstract states:
Adults who lived in homes built before 1946 and from 1946 to 1973 were significantly more likely to walk 1+ miles ≥ 20 times per month than those who lived in homes built after 1973.

Other articles that incorporate Berrigan & Troiano's research suggest that the significance of their results is about more than merely whether a home is "ugly." Granted, neighborhood aesthetics do seem to play a part.

However, the bigger, unsurprising culprit unfortunately seems to be the problem that's knottier, less simplistic, and harder to pontificate about from my armchair: sprawl.

So, we learn (.pdf):
Berrigan and Troiano . . . proposed that neighborhoods with older homes are more likely to have denser interconnected networks of streets, and to have a mix of business and residential use.

The plentiful, related studies, reports and researches on geographic sprawl --
like those
here (includes an interview with Berrigan)
here (.pdf)
here (.pdf)
here (.pdf)
here and here (.pdf) (from an Australian perspective), and
the Sprawl and Health blog, here,
-- reduce to tatters the full-length "ugly buildings kill!" proto-article that my imagination, despite itself, imagined.

So, if you go wondering about whether and how the post-1973 American home causes ill health, these various studies will propose that the causes and effects are multiple and interconnected.

They will suggest to you that less walking goes along with uglier buildings, but also with fewer sidewalks, wider highways, proliferating suburban cul-de-sacs, longer commutes, fewer neighbors, more distant supermarkets, less healthy food choices, increased chronic disease, and rampant obesity.

And beyond all that: the automobile.

And looming above it all: our entire, petroleocentric civilization.

But could the post-1973, suburban home really be the villain which helped usher all these evils into the world?

Two immediate objections present themselves, to refute such a notion:

1) What about the ways in which homes got safer and healthier after 1973?

Evidence here could pertain to:
elevated levels of lead in the blood of kids who live in housing built before 1973, before the Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act Amendment (some sources of info about this are here, here, here and here);

the post-1973 Uniform Building Code's revisions to make buildings more earthquake-proof, particularly in the western USA (sources here and here (.pdf)), or

window guard laws (starting in 1976 in NYC).

In other words, after 1973, buildings began to kill people in some ways, but stopped killing them in other ways.

2) Residents of sububan sprawl might understandably ask:

How DARE those smug, know-it-all city dwellers try to get all Inconvenient Truth-y on US?

Everyone knows that urban neighborhoods are the worst environmental disaster areas of all, right? And that cities are far more inefficient resource hogs and squanderers than any suburban tract will ever be, right?

So urban hypocrites must be in no position whatsoever to point fingers about ANY unhealthy side effects of suburbia, or the oil economy that sustains it, right?

The authoritative, popular treatment of this cluster of rejoinders seems most often to be taken to be David Owen's 2004 New Yorker piece, "Why New York Is the Greenest City in the U.S." The piece is here and here (in .pdf form). An on-line discussion of Owen's article is here.

However, much on-line discussion about the ecological footprint of cities seems to look forward and ahead, not down. Such discussion concedes that cities are indeed dirty, and need to get much greener, and will be forced to get greener, in any post-oil, post-sprawl world.

A few sites concerned with this aspect of city life, linked here for my lazy ass's future (mis)reading, are
City of the Future,
Post Carbon Cities, and
Oil Drum NYC.

In addition, Toby Hemenway's 2005 piece, "Cities, Peak Oil, and Sustainability" seems to have sparked a lot of discussion, including a thoughtful response, here.

Along in the wake of these sources naturally come various "new urbanist" takes on cities, suburbs and health. These are of varying levels of interestingness, but can be sampled here, here and here.

All these sources, taken together, are a neat reminder of the ways in which suburban sprawl does not happen in a vacuum, and "ugly" buildings don't exist (and are not prevented or torn down) in isolation, on the frictionless plane of "my" lazy, finger-waggy, jaded, bloggerish, tiny imagination
(though the occasional, amateur archicritical fingerwag remains fun).

Rather, once more, in swoop wearisome lessons about larger economic and political forces, ones that shape how resources are allocated, that implicate society as a whole, including urban residents and voters.

For example: Sprawl sprawls because of conscious (if often excessively heedless) public policy choices and deliberate state government spending priorities, as in Illinois and Minneapolis.

The punchline here is that the original magazine article, the one sentence from which I glimpsed in isolation and misunderstood while skimming, squarely addresses the sprawl issue.

So, had I read the original article (by Clive Thompson)
                                                                 (his v. cool blog, "collision detection," is here)
                                                                                                    properly the first time around, I would have caught its sprawly bit, would not have gone off on a digression spurred by misreading and misdirection, and would have spared myself a lot of needless
                                          [hmpf -- not "needed" -- but for purposes of what?]
                                                                                                          research and the reader (i.e., my future self) this entire post.

Funny how that works.

[1/7/09 comics-related update here]

[9/18/09 green urbanism-related update:

Per Witold Rybczynski in the Oct. 2009 Atlantic Monthly, here:

Architectural journals and the Sunday supplements tout newfangled houses tricked out with rainwater-collection systems, solar arrays, and bamboo flooring. Yet any detached single-family house has more external walls and roof—and hence more heating loads in winter and cooling loads in summer—than a comparable attached townhouse, and each consumes more energy than an apartment in a multifamily building. Again, it doesn’t really matter how many green features are present. A reasonably well-built and well-insulated multifamily building is inherently more sustainable than a detached house. Similarly, an old building on an urban site, adapted and reused, is greener than any new building on a newly developed site.           ]