The Hyperreality of Nowhere
I forget who it was that tipped me off to Jake Longstreth, but for people who don’t think there’s a lot of technique in contemporary art, his sprawl landscapes are, in the fashion of the Leipzig school, refreshingly representational, and in this case, realist.
Or maybe we should say hyper-realist. Longstreth’s designs highlight both the artifice of Euclidian forms in suburbia (Lovecraft be damned, they’re unnatural in a fundamental way) and their all-but complete transcendence of geography. Any one of his acrylics could be a depiction of just about anywhere – not just in the United States but throughout the world – in the postmodern “international style” created by a combination of these atomized, automobile-focused land use patterns and physical spaces where the only adornment is branding from whatever transnational entity is occupying that space at the time, or perhaps spaces that they created – per Michael Mehaffy’s notes on McDonalds as an indicator species for motorized globalization – and then abandon to leave indelible footprints in whatever form comes after it.
Once again we find urbanism to be intersectional – that sprawl leads not to mere aesthetic discomforts that can be resolved with mild aesthetic treatments, or even simply to alienation and ultimately the marginalization of groups not privileged by automobility. While this is certainly the case, there are traditional land-use programs that create alienation as well – German colonialism created architecture in Namibia that, however walkable and polite, was so uncanny that its newtowns were used to great effect as set pieces for AMC’s remake of The Prisoner.
The problem with sprawl, then, that is specific to sprawl as a phenomenon, is that it deconstructs physical landscapes so as not merely to render them alienating, unrecognizable, and impossible to navigate without gigantic machinery, but as to leave in their stead a set of hyperreal phenomena ultimately powered entirely by fossil-fuel logistical chains and global simulacra. The mythical identical hamburger is powered by oil chains enabled through despotism and anarchy, made of cows often packed gangrenously tight some 10,000 miles away in a rainforest whose trees were burned or sawed into the paper that wraps the sandwich itself – and the lumber that forms the furniture, walls, and even structural elements of the building in which we eat it.
This isn’t really news, though, and before I get too French, let me say that I don’t have a perfect aesthetic solution, here. As much as I might knock on new-urbanists for getting it wrong or losing focus, they do understand the lack of organic consensus at the root of these issues, the need for indigenous and critical regional forms, and the failure of programmatic modernism to create democratic, participatory visions of the world – or even functional ones, in many cases. But I do believe the way to create real alternatives is not necessarily to shrink back into the vernacular, but ultimately to involve that sort of participation in all aesthetic decisions – to ask stakeholders what they actually want in their environment.