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Undesigning America
by Amos Klausner

Retreating to the woods surrounding Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau sought to make for himself a life that was deliberate and by his own hand. Cloistered along those reflective shores, Thoreau defined a two year journey of escapism. His was a premeditated retreat from a young nation still bursting with the newly initiated who were filled with the excitement and energy to define their place in America. Writing, in 1846, about his time in the woods Thoreau noted, "There is an incessant flow of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness." The author fills his memoir with detailed musings on the pleasures of sounds and seasons at Walden. In the wild he is unplugged and re-energized.

While it may seem premature to tune in, turn on and drop out as far back as the mid 1800's, Thoreau was living in a time marked by rapid expansion into new corners of the American landscape. (Only three years later gold fever would spread from coast to coast, turning small mission towns like San Francisco into dense urban centers.) With expansion came opportunities to define and divide new territory. The Land Ordinance of 1785, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, extended government authority over the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes regions. As a response to what he believed to be a confusing survey system already in use, Jefferson suggested a new grid system based on the rectangle. The grid divided land into plots one mile square, each consisting of 640 acres. The grid also placed a visible design upon a relatively untouched landscape. The ordinance was the first of its kind in America but would continue to affect urban, suburban and farmland planning to present day.

Jefferson's grid and Thoreau's reaction to it represent the constant tension between the spaces we define and the choices we make in how we inhabit them. This friction expresses itself not only through land planning but also through the disciplines of architecture, industrial design and information design. In the current global economy our experiences are increasingly predetermined. Armed with human logic algorithms and programmed responses, ours are interactions more frequently based on computer models, cost benefit analyses and best-case scenarios. In opposition to this is Undesign. Characterized as places, spaces and encounters that can't be pre-qualified, undesigned spaces succeed because they are unique, because they change over time and because they are entropic, random and natural.

In architecture and land planning the organic rise of place and its inherently disparate building programs is described as slow space. Michael Bell, a professor of architecture at Rice University and leading proponent of slow space theory, notes that these are zones within the urban envelope that are created by "default rather than intention". Using Houston as a case study, Bell investigates how political, social and economic conditions can align to allow for development that was born outside the grid. In slow space architecture, empty spaces and commerce collide in an environmental free for all. Small and medium sized cities across America often call these areas "the strip". The word alone evokes images of polished car dealerships, family restaurants with oversized neon signs, full serve gas stations and mid century shopping palaces. But that is our parent's strip, a place where diverse interests could comfortably convene to serve the needs of many. Houston not withstanding, the strip as we learned it is slowly disappearing in favor of a version modified and re-designed by a new set of political, social and economic forces. Today the strip defines our worst fears about land shaping and slow space is giving way to something more akin to faux space. Along once scenic routes, the stimulating unpredictability of undesign is giving way to a new paradigm where the strip connects a profusion of tilt-up subdivisions with look-alike houses. Whether it is two, four, six or even eight lanes wide, the strip can continue indefinitely, repeating itself every twenty miles with a population of big box retailers clustered together in the new American mall. And with each off ramp to Target and Wal-Mart the traffic slows to a crawl. The once sublime acts of travel, business and communication have been debased as the Jeffersonian grid continues to expand beyond its initial survey.

Undesign is more than nostalgia. It is wild space. At the urban core there are still pockets of wild-ness. The inner city or the ghetto and its deep urban landscape succeed in contrast to modern development because it is relatively untouched by planners, designers and architects (perhaps because the numbers aren't there). Left with a combination of local redevelopment initiatives, run down housing and ruins, these spaces become increasingly valuable because they are truly reflective of the people who live and work there. Photographer and ethnographer Camilo Vergara has dedicated his career to investigating the decay and reuse of inner city buildings and in turn the communities affecting those changes. From the Bronx to Chicago and from Detroit to Los Angeles, Vergara (2002 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship) has chronicled subtle changes in forgotten and overlooked places. His work is both a growing archive on the transformation and history of American inner cities and a reminder that a vibrant, if underprivileged, society exists just under the surface. Responding to a question about why he has dedicated his attention to urban poverty Vergara responded, "I've always been interested in places that enhance my sense of instability and the precariousness of my own existence." His current project documents the reuse of ghetto architecture as storefront churches. The churches, proclaimed sacred spaces by ambitious pastors and re-branded with homespun additions and hand painted signs, often disappear as quickly as they arrived.

Moving away from the grit and uncertainty of the ghetto, past color-coded suburban subdivisions, undesign thrives along the knife-edge where habitation meets emptiness. An important transition zone between the built and unbuilt environment appears along tired gas and lodging strips where weathered billboards advertise Christian salvation along with beef jerky by the pound. This is where we can find the last vestige of the wistful kicks found along routes made famous in American automotive culture. It also exists as space in flux. The instability between what is and what might be is powerful and the threat that dirt pull-outs, suicide lanes and hushed diners may give way to the ever extending ribbon of suburban sprawl is real. At times the two clash in an explosion that has been captured by the lens of graphic designer and photographer Rudy VanderLans (of type foundry Émigré fame). VanderLans has plied the backroads of the Southern California desert to uncover an exciting dichotomy. His recently published book, Supermarket, is filled with plush images that vividly witness this friction. Similar in essence to Camilo Vergara's photographs, Rudy VanderLans captures a threatened landscape and the demise of undesign in favor of a more routine and dependable alternative.

Just on the other side of the road, desert sand gives way to an American wilderness that asks us to stand alone against nature. The obvious lack of protection and creature comforts might suggest that human interactions with natural wilderness would be limited. Just the opposite is true. Our national parks and wilderness areas are more heavily traveled than ever, prompting restrictions on access to popular destinations like Yosemite Valley. In the past twenty years total visits to U.S. national parks has risen from almost 283 million total visits in 1979 to a peak of 436 million total visits in 1999, an increase of 54 percent. The large-scale interest to immerse oneself in a completely undesigned environment is astounding. It is also a call to arms for multiple generations whose history and memory of place is being drowned by solutions that are driven by an information age scaled more to immediacy, economics and productivity than personality.

Thoreau's Walden was never pure wilderness and today it is an ordinary New England swimming hole. Still, the lessons learned at Walden and Thoreau's detailed account of his time spent there make it a mythical place. If Jefferson's grid continues to broaden its reach, rising off the land into a third dimension and marking our lives in new ways, then disorder as a response to artificiality may be the novelty we have forgotten.

Amos Klausner is the Director of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

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