June 7, 2008

Urban frontiers (or, why I have hundreds of photos of abandoned gas stations)

Reading the NYT magazine architecture issue this morning, I really identified with this:

"The notion of a frontier waiting to be explored is central to LOT-EK’s vision, and in all cases, that frontier is an urban one. Tolla and Lignano, who are in their mid-40s, grew up in the same Naples neighborhood but did not really know each other until they were university students. After graduation, they spent three months traveling around the United States and were bowled over by what they saw — especially in contrast to Europe’s “untouchable history,” as Tolla put it. And as if America’s size and relative newness weren’t enough, the two were particularly awed by its industrial landscape, which would ultimately shape their design vocabulary... They also began recording in notes and photographs the chaotic, random and banal elements of the man-made landscape."

In my case, I didn't come from a country with an untouchable history, like Italy, but from New Zealand, a country with not much constructed history at all. To Tolla and Lignano, America's urban and industrial landscapes appear as a new frontier, something to be adapted and explored. They are equally mesmerizing to me, but almost for the opposite reason. When I look at a disused factory, rows of shipping containers in a field, plastic bags caught in razor wire fences, what I see is the history of a spectacular effort to remake the environment--one that seems to me to be distinctly American in its scale and ambition. But structures that begin their life as something proudly manmade revert to or mimic nature in the end, and in doing so they create their own kind of weirdly beautiful landscape.

(Photos are of LA's Mt Vernon industrial area; Pecos, Texas; and Washington DC.)