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…aesthetics…

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It must be one of the telltale signs of getting older; I was going to start off by writing ‘A little while ago…’ when I realized that it was, likely, at least 13 years ago I had the beginnings of this thought. The mere blip on my radar these days would have meant an eternity not so long ago. Life is measured much differently, I see now, then it was when life had distinct stages; school years marking time and summers off, new friends and challenges to push you along and quietly imply that you’re to become something.

I read a book then, called Learning from Las Vegas. It was talked about from time to time in Architecture school, but I never actually got around to reading it until I was well into my own career and on the verge of going out on my own. It was written by Robert Venturi, an Architect, who was a professor and put this thing together with some of his students around the late 60’s. I’m guessing at that. I could look it up on google or even just pull it off my bookshelf I guess, but I’m lazy and it doesn’t really matter. It was a study and analysis of the ‘old’ Las Vegas – not so much about the style – perhaps maybe the lack of it, but more about the scale of things like the streets, the way casinos were meant to be anonymous boxes that cut off your sense of time and place specifically so you would get lost in them, and the way signage had come to replace the architecture. Mostly it was because Las Vegas was built around cars. He compared and contrasted it to a lot of development trends happening around Main Street America – every city, every strip mall was becoming a rendering of Las Vegas because it was the model for the way we got information those days; from the seat of a car at 40mph…

It stuck in my head as something intriguing, because I’d been recently to the ‘new’ Las Vegas – Treasure Island with a show of Cirque du Soleil, walked around the ‘strip’ to the New York, New York, watched the perfectly scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower being constructed across the street. I thought it would make an interesting book; Learning from Las Vegas, part II, to look at it as was now, and figure out why.

Because clearly, what once dictated the design, had been replaced with an entirely different theme and reasoning. I was thinking at the time, it might even make an interesting thesis for a Masters Degree…

I pondered it because it was at the cusp of the ‘retro’ design explosion, seeing that once again, what was happening in Las Vegas was filtering down and influencing what was happening around Main Street and Strip Mall America. And years later – even today – that ‘retro’ design? – it’s still out there, lurking around and evolving into something meaningless to us all, in the form of the Mini, the new Fiat 500, the Camaro, the Dodge Challenger… At the time, the New Beetle from Volkswagen had only just come out – Starbucks was beginning to explode, popping up with sanitized and standardized neuvo-bohemian coffee houses, and strip malls everywhere were being remade with stucco store fronts, flower boxes, awnings, small kitschy adornments and signage that might have come from some Parisian street…

I wondered about this aesthetic – it was a puzzling phenomena – though I think I understand it a lot better now. It was at the same time that things like the internet began blossoming and computers were fast showing up everywhere, in almost every home…

I did, actually, look at and then shelve plans of getting a masters degree. What threw me off was the simple act of beginning to cook for myself and finding the first inklings of where my frustrations sprang from. It all came from using a knife on a daily basis for a few months. I realized how much I simply loved using my hands for things – having a skill that doesn’t change – tools you can know, develop an intimacy with, see when they need sharpening or honing in order to work the way you want them to. Computers, I realized after drafting on one for almost a decade, took that very thing from you. They constantly change – new versions of a program – a new way of organizing, approaching a drawing – a need for a new computer to run it all… Planned obsolescence is what they lovingly, jokingly call this thing. But it’s not just the tool – it’s a purposeful obsolescence of any knowledge. You live in flux and never really know what you can and cannot actually do…

Building departments, codes, too – all change – become ‘greener’ and more arbitrary in the ways they behave and the variety of information they require for approval. The things you know today are guaranteed to be inapplicable tomorrow. For no real reason.

I used to marvel at the whole ‘retro’ design movement as a sort of reflection – and it is – of our times. It caters to the past and gives us instant rapport with places by drawing on things with an established cultural ethos. It speaks to, I used to think, how hurried we’ve become to actually get to know anything physical for ourselves. But it’s deeper than that, I realize now. We’re asked, commanded even with every passing day, to leave less of a footprint on the world, no sign of our being – not a wisp of smoke, no scent of our soul, nor imprint of an original thought that hasn’t been carefully streamed through a politically correct filter…

We’re dominated with technologies that make time and place irrelevant. Have ‘leaders’ who worm their way into as many facets of our day to day lives as possible, telling us not to act until permission is given, asking us always to strive to mitigate our existence…

I can’t help but wonder what tomorrow’s generation will have for a style, a hallmark. Fins on a Cadillac? We don’t build rockets or have dreams of going to the moon anymore. In fact – I can’t think of a single thing that ‘we’ hold as a dream. They won’t be emulating or doing a retro of what we are. Of that I am certain, because we live invisible lives, and our technology lets where we are and what we are matter less. No paper trail, no footprint…

I wonder what that makes us and if it’s good. I don’t think it is. We’re living in the era of everywhere and nowhere at the same time, with technologies which instead of having any visible form, make it seamless and irrelevant. Nothing tethers us to where we are, what we can do, what we should do. That scares me – because those are the very things that give us our own place in the world, our identity, our culture, our own solitary lives a unique rhythm and meaning.

I think it’s why making food is such a simple, liberating and necessary ritual. It’s the reason why a silent revolution is welling up and gaining momentum. It’s faceless and quiet and punctuated by people in your own neighborhood once again raising chickens and keeping bees and brewing their own beer. It’s not just a hobby, anymore – it’s a rebirth – a phoenix rising up and giving shape to something that’s been lacking in the rest of the world, filling some void, satiating people in ways that the modern world of eternal distraction and minutia simply doesn’t.

Maybe we do not, and can not have an aesthetic of our own because more and more people are realizing that the generation that put men on the moon, oddly, gave birth to a generation of neotenized half-wits who don’t know any longer how to slaughter a chicken, or make a fire without matches and a flammable liquid. Maybe we don’t deserve one, maybe we don’t want to see what we really are… Maybe it’s because ‘retro’ is easy and kitschy and fun and we can laugh at the colors of the Brady Bunch shag carpets and think we’re so much more enlightened now. The reality is; we’re self sufficient only when clad in ample padding, in safe and completely smoke-free environments, with ample power to connect us to a network so we can talk about the weather or the bus-ride, or the body odor of some stranger we happened upon on our way to work.

Maybe the people raising chickens, keeping bees and brewing beer see it a little different. And maybe our aesthetic won’t be epitomized by something as magnificent as Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon, or expressed in fanciful fins on a massive Cadillac. Maybe it will be a simple chicken footprint in the dirt somewhere. Whatever it is, it will be genuine, it will be ours and it won’t just be a reflection of who are, but a projection of the things we cherish…

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