Daniel Kaven, “Architecture of Normal: The Colonization of the American Landscape”

 

Richard Speer

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Daniel Kaven, “Ladle Rapids,” 2020, mixed-media, 38 x 52"

Cookie-cutter suburbs and strip malls, clogged highways and parking lots, behemoth chain stores of the Ikea and Costco ilk hawking cheap goods in bulk. McMansions with televisions in every room, fronted by lawns kept verdant by sprinklers sapping water from fast-depleting reservoirs. Blighted inner cities, dead industrial zones, decaying automobile plants, and a populace divorced from the traditional hubs, disconnected from in-person interaction, spending hours in cars on soulless commutes. 

 

This is a snapshot of the built environment in the United States, and it ain’t pretty. How did we get here? How has a nation that produced Frank Lloyd Wright and nurtured Richard Neutra also left us shuttling between Cheesecake Factories and cul-de-sacs replete with zero-lot-line homes that look the same from sea to shining sea? And through what perversion of urban planning, policy, and lifestyle have such architectural grotesqueries become the norm in a country where individualism and diversity of expression were supposed to be our democratic and aesthetic cornerstones? Artist and architect Daniel Kaven takes up these questions in his book, “Architecture of Normal: The Colonization of the American Landscape,” newly published by Birkhäuser (Basel).

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Daniel Kaven, “Golden Lights,” 2021, mixed-media, 38 × 52"

Kaven, who helms the firm William/Kaven Architecture along with his brother, Trevor Lewis, swept onto the Portland art scene in 2004 with a series of exhibitions that combined film, photography, and mixed-media collage. In more recent years, with an architecture degree under his belt from the University of Oregon, he has become known for his immaculate, clean-lined residential and mixed-use buildings around the Northwest and beyond, garnering critical praise in the Wall Street Journal and winning accolades from the Chicago Athenaeum and European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies, which recently feted him and Lewis in a ceremony at the foot of the Acropolis. Fair to say he’s a Portland boy done good.

 

But Kaven’s heart belongs to New Mexico, where he was born in 1977, where his parents still live, and where he spent his boyhood in Albuquerque along a main street called Central Avenue, otherwise known as Route 66. This was well past that route’s romanticized heyday, and although Kaven harbors a certain nostalgia for the K-Marts, 7-11s, and K-BOB’s Steakhouses that lined Albuquerque’s thoroughfares, as an adult and an architect he has come to loathe the interchangeable commercial emporia that have metastasized in the city, the wider West, and the U.S. as a whole — a homogenized anti-style he calls “derivitecture.” In the book, Albuquerque serves as his point of departure, as Los Angeles did in Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz” (1990), in examining how a city and a region grew and transmogrified at the confluence of geographic, political, and economic forces. With the aid of editor Natalie Garyet, Kaven has crafted a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned treatise in which he argues that historical eras’ dominant modes of transportation — walking on foot, riding horses, trains, cars, and airplanes — have inexorably influenced our public and private spaces.

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Daniel Kaven, “Truckstop Warrior,” 2021, mixed-media, 52 × 38"

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Daniel Kaven, “George,” 2020, mixed-media, 52 × 38"

He dates the beginning of our long architectural devolution to the arrival in 1540 of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in what is now the American Southwest. Searching for the apocryphal “Seven Cities of Gold,” the explorer brought with him European culture, religion, weaponry, and the hulking, bizarre-looking animals he and his soldiers sat astride, which the native Zuni and Anasazi had never before laid eyes on. Coronado ushered in epochal changes, most ignominiously smallpox, which brought about the genocide of native peoples, as well as the destruction of an organic model of living, a model in which the teepees of the migratory Plains tribes and the pueblos of the Navajo and Apache had long provided shelter commensurate with life lived hand in hand with the land. Kaven writes: “If Native American architecture represented an effortless blend between nature and human life, European-American architecture on the wide-open land of the West would become characterized by the denial of nature.”

 

The author leads us through centuries of cascading geopolitical events that imposed European mores upon the continent: the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Great Migration of 1843, the Gold Rush, the Homestead Act of 1862, the advent and proliferation of steam locomotion, the streetcars of the 1880s, the motorcars of the early 20th century. Private ownership of land and the protection of that ownership brought about the necessity to survey and lay down geometric boundaries — property lines — irrespective of whether those lines made any practical topographical sense. The land was forced to support what arbitrary property lines stipulated, not the other way around. Fast-forwarding through the centuries, the architecture of locality gave way to the architecture of empire: designed far away, imported, imposed. The centralized “rail towns” that sprang up to support railroads gave way to decentralized suburbs and exurbs once cars made travel distances less intimidating. The 20th century brought Sears & Roebuck’s “kit homes” and the ubiquity of trailer parks. With cars came drive-through lanes at banks and fast-food joints, drive-in movies, garish road signs to quickly capture the attention of motorists speeding by, brooding overpasses and interstates, which ruthlessly cut through historic neighborhoods, displacing entire communities, most often those at or near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Mom-and-pop storefronts gave way to chains, residents fled congested downtowns, and corporate parks severed workers from the thriving agora of city centers.

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Daniel Kaven, “Chain Gang,” 2021, mixed-media, 38 x 52"

As for airplanes, Kaven notes their influence over the aerodynamic grace of Art Deco architecture and design. The positioning of airports on the edges of cities was among many factors contributing to urban sprawl. Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal at JFK International Airport exerted an outsize impact on the popularity of midcentury modernism. Finally, there was a causal link between jet travel, increased tourism, destinations such as Las Vegas and Disneyland, and the building booms those and similar attractions engendered. (A chapter about space travel, still in its infancy and of limited architectural consequence, feels undercooked and tacked-on.)

 

After an informative, if often grim, time-travel journey through the interlinked histories of transportation, structures, and infrastructure, Kaven’s final chapter sums up where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going. He believes that after the millennia of nomadic life in American ended (or more accurately, was suddenly halted by the genocide of Native Americans), the era of train travel, which fostered centralized, Old World-style communities, was our most functional civic paradigm, from the standpoints of walkability, ease of access to goods and services, and social cohesion. He bemoans our current age of “destination culture,” wherein getting quickly from Point A to Point B precludes paying much attention to the richness that lies in between. And he is gravely concerned about the inevitability of on-demand autonomous air travel, essentially flying taxis that whisk us great distances in short time frames. What we admittedly gain in convenience, we suffer in ever-greater alienation from the landscape and our fellows.

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Daniel Kaven, “Crusade,” 2018, mixed-media, 38 x 52"

Less time spent between home, work, and vacation destinations, as well as the speedy delivery of almost any product by drivers and soon drones, will further decentralize cities as hubs of civic discourse and cultural activity. So will the exponential increase in cyber-commuting in the post-Covid era, to say nothing of congregating via the metaverse rather than in physical space. Regulating the potential introduction of autonomous planes could prove an absolute fiasco if we delegate it to the anarchy of the free market. Kaven holds we must exhaustively pre-plan and debate a philosophy for extending mundane personal travel into the skies, lest we wind up with an even worse caliber of dysfunction than that which has dogged us in earlier models of transportation. If we can routinely escape the Cartesian grid of earthbound transport and take to the skies for the most impetuous caprice, and it is left to the likes of Amazon, Google, Tesla, and the bottomless sinkhole of consumer demand to dictate how this technology manifests, we are likely to wind up with a host of unintended consequences that are aesthetically and socio-politically disastrous.

 

For a tome this sobering and cautionary, “Architecture of Normal” is a surprisingly zippy read. The graphic design, by Kaven himself, is dynamic and snazzy, from the fuchsia foiled cover and pink-edged pages to the counterposing of sepia-toned archival images with the vivid neons of Kaven’s own photographs and digital collages. He interrupts the historical narrative with welcome personal recollections of growing up in New Mexico and his “vision quests” across the West from 2017 to 2019 as he was writing the book. Unlike a flamboyant ideologue à la Frank Lloyd Wright, Kaven doesn’t view his own style of architecture as remedying the ills “progress” has visited upon our shores. Nor does he use the book to promote his own buildings and the precepts that underlie them. Rather, he asks that we open our eyes to what has caused the de-beautification of our epic American landscape and to be mindful, very mindful, of the perils that lie ahead. 

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