American Non-Beauty

Despite its subtropical setting, Miami has managed to make itself ugly

By force of habit, we can live in a city and come to accept the degradation of our surroundings. Urban changes take place slowly, and we may not notice them because we move around these environments as part of our daily lives. Suddenly we realize the beauty is no more. Let's face it, Miami has become a weird mix of traffic-clogged highways, strip malls, cheap “pleasant villages,” parking-lot wastelands with sparse green areas strewn in between, and plenty of sun with no shade. Our city is becoming ugly. The construction is shoddy, the housing developments tedious, the architecture anti-functional. Few aesthetic standards are being set, by private initiative or through city planning or zoning laws. As examples, take a look at three areas: Brickell Avenue, Liberty City, and the typical city-limit sprawl of suburbia.

Many people see Brickell as one of Miami's positive architectural achievements. Driving along I-95 south of downtown, one sees the structures that have come to define part of the cityscape. Most banks on Brickell are windowless glass boxes. Tall and austere, they seem cold and inaccessible. Then there are the condominiums: There is nothing extraordinary about them in terms of design, save for two or three that did establish a somewhat Postmodern Miami feeling. Overall Brickell speaks of exile from the environment (many tenants have taken refuge there from Latin America's political turmoil). These buildings look at the city from a superior, safe, and detached point of view. They represent a flamboyant separation in terms of income, lifestyle, and self-imposed isolation. Like old fortresses, they are gated, and they only can be accessed by car; guards check visitors and strangers at each gate.

Not too far away, in Liberty City, the poor remain poor and also isolated. With the explosion of suburbia throughout America during the Sixties and Seventies, highway expansions decimated and dissected poor neighborhoods to the detriment of much needed cohesion to the city as a whole. With time awkward city ordinances and bad development practices only exacerbated segregation and depression in areas such as Liberty City. The high unemployment, pervasive crime, and poor tax base kept business away, and what went up in its place were ugly cheap establishments. Add to this the halfway houses and rehabilitation centers that continue to accumulate around these impoverished areas, and beauty all but disappeared.

Middle-class America moved west of the city, creating the sprawl of a place such as Westchester. Most of these developments follow the quick-fix utilitarian model. They're examples of mediocre construction, as Hurricane Andrew dramatically proved. Poor design and horrible style reign. Many residents believe they're getting their money's worth, but the tradeoff is ominous. Far from city centers, with little greenery and unwalkable sidewalkless streets, developers keep adding ugly, stressful, car-polluting environments, devoid of any communal feeling. The sight has become familiar: monotonous twisting rows of single-family monotone units filled with plastic pipes, hollow walls, cheap moldings; some houses lack defined fronts and backs, but yes, they always have a front garage.

Breaking up the cookie-cutter housing, we get some respite in the form of shopping malls and multiplexes. This is not the old arcade of yesteryear, with an embedded network of familiar retailers and a variety of heterogeneous neighborhood shops. Rather, these are gigantic structures of no architectural importance, exhibiting ostentatious parking lots, a waste of asphalt and space. Their sole purpose is to house endless stores. Sure shopping malls try hard to entertain us, offering all the amenities possible so we don't feel as though we're there to spend our money. But no matter how much they try, it's obvious most of our malls are still insipid spaces, filled with plenty of goods and food courts with bad food, but not really filling in the void of a real city center or town square, which offers more than merchandise.

Which brings me to another fixture of our environment: the car, that old American emblem of modernity now turned into a paradigm of noise and pollution. As we rely on more and bigger gas-guzzling vehicles, we continue to try to solve traffic problems by building additional highways. But in the end, new roads designed to decongest traffic only lead to more development, more suburban sprawl, and thus, more traffic. Rather than navigating pristine preserves, most of our beloved SUVs barrel down the same traffic-choked highways, past the same swaths of commercial blight and architectural dreck, through the same gated communities, tacky golf villas, and dull single-family outgrowths that the majority of Americans call home.

Where are the parks, fountains, and boulevards we revere when we travel overseas? A beautiful city needs beautiful designs that incorporate and play off the natural environment specific to the location -- in our case the water and waterfront properties, the flora and fauna of the subtropics, the natural bright light, among many other assets. But creating more beautiful environments may require us to forego some pleasures we take for granted. Could we restrict the use and speed of vehicles and encourage public transportation? Will we stop segregating the poor and work to create safer, more integrated neighborhoods? Could we build streets that are interesting, accessible, and encourage community interaction? To achieve these goals, we may need to better comprehend how to reach them. If the goal is to have an attractive, functional city, the public must first understand what basic city planning and zoning means and then make sure our planners stick to them. More roads may simply mean more sprawl, the goal of alleviating traffic may not involve much construction at all. Simplicity, elegance, cohesion, and even functionality are related to beauty. But this beauty must be what we are about and not what we simply copy from inefficient models.

 
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