Small and Beautiful Aren’t Always Compatible, But Nearly Always David Stairs
Small and personal aren’t limited to individual spaces. Community spaces can also be small, local, and intimate, or… just big corporate wastelands.
Grey Bull, Wyoming
On a 7500-mile summer 2009 sojourn throughout the West, I marveled at how familiar and bland many American communities had become. Every town has its commercial strip, of course, whether it’s an 1880s town saloon and blacksmith shop or more modern equivalents. But the nature of commercial property has morphed dramatically in America over the last half century, and there seems to be a direct correlation to size.
Many are the stories of communities that have resisted the “big boxing” of their townscapes, yet in smaller places that lack a guarantee of investment return, Walmart won’t even commit their resources. These places usually retain a vibrancy and regionalism lacking in communities that have been corporately branded. Meanwhile, Idaho Falls, Idaho, with all the familiar national franchises aligning both sides of the strip, looks a lot like Rapid City, South Dakota, or Bend, Oregon. Branding has a tremendous leveling/dehumanizing effect on the landscape.
Idaho Falls, Idaho
The American West is one of the world’s premier BIG LANDSCAPES. In Nevada you can drive for hours and see little more than military preserves or BLM managed spaces. In such landscapes small towns become not only the needed next fuel stop, but oases in a sea of apparent emptiness. Smaller communities, some in danger of slipping out of existence altogether, often have a much stronger claim on architectural identity than corporatized communities. These towns, like John Day, Oregon, or Grey Bull, Wyoming aren’t without a Dairy Queen or a Best Western, but they aren’t defined by corporations either. And Best Western does make an effort to cite a locale’s qualities in its architectural standardization, each franchise having a different look.
John Day, Oregon
What does this have to do with the world’s underprivileged and their struggle to find adequate housing? Obviously, one doesn’t have to travel out of the country to find inadequate facilities. In many places of the American West people occupy extremely straitened circumstances. A number of the tribal areas have been completely passed over by the gaming phenomenon. At Four Corners, the quaint monument administered by the Navajo Nation, people sell commemorative T-shirts, home made jewelry, and sno-cones at what must be the dustiest bazaar in North America. Although the tribe has collected an admission fee since the late ’80s, the last time the monument was upgraded, corruption and in-fighting prevent anything more than wooden shacks from being erected for the site’s vendors. And New Mexico’s vendors, the first ones one comes to, trump Utah’s or Colorado’s.
Four Corners, Navajo Nation, with vacant Colorado souvenir shacks in background
Mind you, I am not advocating a corporate solution for the vendors at Four Corners! On the contrary, the structures there made me feel right at home, so often have I encountered similar ones in Africa. What I am saying is that, while we encourage our students to be more sensitive to the needs and wisdom of the underprivileged, we should remind ourselves that the visual and architectural desertification that results from corporate branding of our cities and towns impoverishes everyone. While we absolutely need to think beyond pro-bono design solutions to the world’s pressing social and environmental crises, we should take an absolutely sober look at the erosion of our own cultural heritage in the face of our apparent need for lowest-common denominator commercialized comforts.
David Stairs, founder of Designers Without Borders and Design-Altruism-Project blog, writes about the big landscapes and small architectures...