Industrialized Space and Time

19 March 2011


A typical house of the Automobile Age, the most prominent feature of which is its large, protruding garage with direct access to the street. One can go from the climate-controlled comfort of one's vehicle to the climate-controlled comfort of one's home without ever being exposed to the conditions of the neighborhood.

In fully industrialized societies space and time are commodities as is almost everything else. Space and time are bought and sold, traded on the open market. Moreover, the commodification of space and time have profound implications for human lives necessarily lived in space and time. It is often considered the height of dehumanization and depersonalization to assign a dollar value to human life (not to mention unspeakably vulgar), and while this is sometimes done for legal purposes, because of its inflammatory character our institutions often make an effort to avoid putting a price on life. However, there is little or no hesitation to putting a price on time and space, and this has the direct effect of regimenting human life according to monetary values.

Steele Park, an early example of Transit Oriented Development (TOD), built close to the Elmonica Max station (less than five minutes' walk).

For the vast majority of individuals living in industrialized societies, where you live is an economic decision rather than an existential decision. In short, you live where you can afford to live. Only for the wealthiest of the wealthy is there true choice of where to live, and for them the sky is the limit. Take a look at the Saturday edition of the Financial Times sometime and you will see the kind of places advertised for the kind of people who have a chalet in Switzerland, an apartment in New York, a flat in London, and a vacation house on Cyprus. It is money that buys access to these spaces; more money means more space in quantitative terms and more spaces in numerical, iterative terms.

A Max train at the Elmonica Max station. Portland has a better mass transit system than many US cities, and the Max light rail system is the centerpiece of this development.

Before the industrialization of Occidental civilization, where you lived was an existential choice — or, rather, an existential consequence of your circumstances, most of which are not chosen. Most often, it was an existential default position, but where you lived had much more to do with your identity than with your income. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have had any kind of income at all, in the formal economic sense, just as you probably would not have had a job in the formal economic sense. But you would have had a home, and this home would have been rooted in traditions that disappeared deep into the mists of time. During the same period, lending money at interest was forbidden, and as we all know, interest is the price of time.

Steele Park as seen from across Baseline Road. Despite high hopes for this early attempt at development centered on mass transit, Steele Park is not an attractive place.

Today, with rent as the price of space and interest as the price of time, the mortgage symbolizes the commodification of space and time (I wrote about this previously in Addendum on Non-Transient Spaces), and the commodification of space and time are the inevitable long term result of industrialization — at least, industrialization according to the particular path of development it took in Occidental civilization. It is entirely possible that industrial development might have followed a different paradigm, and of course Marxism represented a different paradigm of commodification under industrialization, though it was a vision fated to remain unrealized. Once the consequences of the industrialization of space and time are grasped in their fullness, it clarifies certain developments that otherwise seem inscrutable.

Immediately across from Steele Park, on the south side of Baseline Road, and even closer to the Elmonica Max station, this development is far more attractive than Steele Park. It is, of course, incredibly fake and phony, but where are fake and phony people to live if not in fake and phony housing developments?

Many Americans hold in their imagination the image of ideal and idyllic small town life, and many are the social critiques that focus on the departure of present-day life in the US from the fictionalized vision of what life ought to be like (this is a particular case of the primitivist fallacy). One of the central features of this vision is the front porch. It has been pointed out that before the age of the automobile, the carriage house was hidden behind the main house. Now garages are often the most prominent feature of a house as seen from the street. And, of course, the relation of the house to the street is central.

Just down Baseline and around the corner from the above pictured developments, the Baseline Station Condominiums show a little more imagination and are neither quite as grim as Steele Park nor quite as phony as the Elmonica Station development, though they represent yet another experiment in transit oriented development.

So pervasive have the critiques of building based on the convenience of the automobile become that a great many experiments in designing residential areas that depart from the emergent order of the automobile have been developed. Several of these are literally within walking distance of my office in Beaverton. (For readers unfamiliar with the area, Beaverton is a western suburb of Portland, the largest city in Oregon. Nike’s world headquarters is right around the corner from my office, and Intel has a large presence — and a large payroll — in the area.) One can see the many forms of experimentation just by walking around. All the pictures for this post were taken by me, today, during a walk of an hour and twenty minutes’ duration.

TOD aims to encourage residents to use their cars less, to walk more, and to increase housing density in the vicinity of readily available mass transit opportunities. Suburban areas around US cities traditionally had low, single-story development, typically single-family homes, so that to go up to two or three stories is a novelty.

Before the last recession, which hit housing particularly hard (not surprisingly, as the recession was precipitated by the crash of the sub-prime real estate lending market), there was plenty of money available for experimentation in the housing market. Especially in this area of Beaverton, any connection to the housing market prior to 2008 was virtually a license to print money — whether real estate speculator, developer, builder, or real estate agent, all made lots of money, and for a time it looked like the good times would continue to roll, so a lot of the profits were plowed right back into real estate developments.

The Village at Waterhouse is another experiment that seeks to recover the social values of American society that were swept away by industrialization.

Some of the late-comers to the party built projects that never took off and still sit idle and empty. There is a brick development on the corner of Baseline and 170th (not pictured here) that was another experiment in high-density mixed residential and commercial development (definitely part of the TOD paradigm criticized by the Cascade Policy Institution in their report The Mythical World of Transit Oriented Development) that I pass every day. It looks a bit sad, hosting a Subway sandwich shop, a minimart, and a nail salon, but most of it is empty, and several hopeful businesses that opened here early on left with their signs still in the window.

Every house at The Village at Waterhouse has a front porch, but you don't see anyone sitting on the front porch sipping lemonade. It is a nice vision, but it takes more than a particular form of building to make it happen.

In New Wine in Old Bottles I quoted this from Jane Jacobs’ classic work The Life and Death of Great American Cities:

“As for really new ideas of any kind — no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be — there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

It is ironic that in some cases this will occur because of bankruptcy. New buildings are built near the end of a construction boom, they either sit empty or the businesses that initially occupy them fail in the recession that follows the boom, and sometimes the owners of the structures themselves go bankrupt. Eventually the properties find their way on to the market again, but the whole process takes years, and it may be years before the economy begins generating new business opportunities and new businesses again. By this time the once-new buildings for old ideas have become old buildings possibly affordable by new ideas.

This is the alley behind the houses at The Village at Waterhouse, so that cars would access houses from behind and garages would not protrude from the front of the house and dominate the street.

The multi-family common-wall houses in Steele Park have front porches. The single-family houses in The Village at Waterhouse (pictured above) have front porches also, and here they have even built an alley and put the garages behind the houses. But it doesn’t matter how many front porches you build. People aren’t sitting on their front porches, sipping lemonade and talking to their neighbors strolling past. I know that this sounds simple-minded to the point of absurdity, but one must understand the intuitive motivation behind the careful planning rhetoric. (The situation is strangely similar to politicians in the US who hold apocalyptic religious views but who know that talking about these explicitly in public would go over badly, so one is left to infer their views from otherwise inscrutable policy positions.)

At The Village at Waterhouse they even have a little “village green” in the center, presumably where the local militia would turn out to practice drill.

People don’t sit on their front porches sipping lemonade because they are living where they are living for economic reasons, not existential reasons. If they want to pass the time pleasantly, they will drive to the place where they prefer to pass their time, but where it is impracticable to live for any of a number of reasons. Furthermore, the schedules of the families who live in these hopeful developments are also dictated by economics, so that the soccer moms are driving their kids to after-school activities wherever these are located, and these locations are again determined economically, not existentially.

The default development paradigm where experimentation has not been consciously pursued has converged upon large houses closely spaced on small lots, with very little room between them. This follows logically from the cost of space and the desire to maximize personal living space within these parameters.

What do you get when you build “affordable” housing? You get residents who can “afford” to live in “affordable” houses. Again, this is an economic decision; it has nothing to do with a home hallowed by ancestors and time immemorial, nor has it anything to do with finding your true center, finding your place in the world. An ancestral home or finding one’s true center are existential forms of housing, not economic forms of housing. And this is not to suggest any criticism of affordable housing. If anything, affordable housing is more in need now than ever before. Even following the real estate crash of the last recession, housing prices represent the largest single expenditure in a typical family’s budget.

Here's another conscious attempt at experimentation along 173rd, with cars parking behind and doors that open directly out onto the sidewalk. No one ever uses these doors, defeating the purpose of building them.

Despite all the experimentation in housing, including unintentional experimentation, most of the recent developments I have seen do not seem to be accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. Unintended consequences are far more significant than intended consequences, and residents exapt the good intentions of architects and planners, living not according to the design and the plan, but rather according to the dictates and imperatives of life in industrialized society.

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It rained on my walk today, and I got wet. As you can see, I forgot my hat.

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