Posted by: facetothewind | May 19, 2011

What’s beautiful about America?

Some photo observations on American beauty from Austin, Texas…

America now seems doomed for having been constructed hastily and thoughtlessly around the automobile with the availability of cheap gas paving the way. Noisy highways crisscross our lives, cutting up our neighborhoods into nearly unnavigable swaths of concrete.

Strip malls surrounded by treeless heat islands serve as our marketplaces reached only on four wheels. And shocking as it may seem, these sprawling suburbs of homes built in the 70s are slowly inching toward being historic neighborhoods.

But how have these structures affected our collective psyche? Have we become prisoners to our careless architecture and urban design? Are we thriving or quietly suffering behind our hedges and goofy lattice work? Is the strip mall working for us?

For better or worse, this is the aesthetic of America. It emphasizes individualism. It is charismatic, bold, and unapologetic. Finishing details are over-emphasized, drawing out rather than subduing the tacky features of a home. And what is that if not American β€” proudly stating your inadequacies as if that then frees you to be more uninhibited. But what is tacky when tacky has become the predominant theme?

A year ago I was arriving in Europe for the summer, walking and cycling the historic cobblestones of the Old World. In spite of the GDR’s distinct influence on eastern Germany’s architecture, Germany seems mostly to have kept tacky at bay. But this summer I’m on a quest to find something beautiful and lovable about the New World β€” to maybe even embrace tacky. It is after all, what we’ve got to work with.

What better place to start my journey into the meretricious than Austin, Texas? Here the American dream of owning your own home in the suburbs with a fake brick exterior is alive and well. (Or is it real brick that just looks fake?) Homes were built as human hideouts for the nuclear family. Massive driveways serve as launching pads for the automobile with the garage being the most prominent architectural feature. The attention to detail was determined by fad and frugality β€” fanciful without form. And thus we go down in history for having created this look and now we must either keep it up as if there were some historical value to it. Or tear it down. This happened with houses from the 50s and 60s. Many homes once considered ugly met their fate with a bulldozer. But those once impossibly clunky houses are now called mid century modern and realtors quiver at the chance to market such choice properties.

So what will we call this? Brady Bunch Modern? Will today’s tacky be tomorrow’s treasure? Can we ever learn to appreciate this look? We might just have to because what once was built to last only 30 years is now looking like what we’re stuck with and a crumbling nation can no longer afford to re-build.

What is appealing about this threadbare country of mine? It seems to have been lost to a now crumbling patchwork of ticky tacky structures and outdated infrastructure and yet we have to make our lives work amid this daily assault on our senses. We have to find our way through the mazes of ostensibly soul-deadening suburbia as we go to our strip mall churches and offices in industrial parks spiked with power poles. But maybe there is some beauty to it. As a citizen of this nation, I feel compelled to find it or re-gear my mind such that I can see something of beauty in the mess.

This summer I will be bringing you my take on America the Beautiful as I travel from the Southwest to the Northwest by train. Stay tuned.

* * *

So what’s beautiful in America? I think Tom Truss is beautiful, courageous, and compassionate. That’s him with beeswax in his hair at a Chinese restaurant in an Austin strip mall.

And this is Archie, the last of my friend Steve’s doggy dynasty. He’s blind and spends most of his time napping in between little walks bumping into walls.

In his own way, he’s as lovable as the rest of us bumping around in the darkness.



  1. Well, I’m always in favor of trying to find Beauty, though there is such a thing as wishful thinking. I don’t think strip-mall suburbia is “ostensibly” soul deadening; I think it is soul deadening.

    Nevertheless, I wish you much beauty on your journeys.

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