It is an enormous generalisation but you could suggest that European
civilisation was based on exploitation. Ships were the technology and
they roamed the world bringing home gold, silver, spices, attitudes,
ideas, and raw materials to keep the factories producing ever more
In Europe there was enormous surplus wealth resulting from exploitation, and the arts flourished. Along the way whole civilisations were destroyed, but that was almost incidental. Peaceful, stable, sustainable, highly-developed cultures were simply annihilated. Greed fed on generosity. Arrogance destroyed humility.
It was the first wave of globalisation. Vernacular architecture which belonged in place, culture and rituals taught no lessons to the ignorant newcomers. Fed on a materialistic obsession with things the most admired objects were shipped home to museums, on their journey stripped of memories, meaning and stories.
Over time the hard brutal edge softened. Free trade formalised the idea that nothing should impede the flow from the exploited to the exploiters. The World Trade Organisation put money above cultures, and presumed that culture could be bought and sold, just like human beings. When the “world leaders” concluded in 2008 that the way out of the global economic melt-down was to strengthen the WTO they made it clear that power had become a substitute for leadership. Europeans still live in their Euro-centric world. They really do believe they are the centre of the universe as they slide into irrelevance.
The USA was different. It was based on exploitation of the natural world. The Indians were shot, but so were the bison. Hunting to extinction with a gun in your hand became the new sport. Wealth meant mineral wealth and technology was the means of extraction. USA tools were the best in the world and the 747 and B-52 made a new kind of globalisation possible. The greatest export of the USA was a consumer society which would ultimately trash the planet. “Silent Spring” became a wake up call for some, but not for those in power. Greenwash would turn eco-guilt into the new green consumerism.
In the USA the lust for power was not tempered by culture or good taste. Wealth without ostentation was hardly worth having. Differences were to bring enjoyment, but also fear. Poverty can be seen in the USA like nowhere else in the world. Hospitals are for the wealthy and the poor lie on the street because it is their fault for being poor. It is difficult to use the word civilisation for USA because it seems to be so lacking in culture. Museums are full of European masterpieces. Culture and design could be bought.
There were two flaws in USA materialist “culture”. Infinite expectations do not sit easily in a finite world. It is possible to over-exploit nature until there is nothing left to exploit. The consumer society which gains pleasure from the very act of consuming is doomed to self-destruct. Andrew Colarik put this succinctly when he suggested that there is nothing more to life than the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. To the outsider the most worrying thing about the USA is mediocrity. When life is left out of the equation the result is a bland nothingness. Route 66 and motels. Is this pleasure?
The most significant flaw in USA “culture” is the lust for power. The problem with power is that it is inherently unstable. People with power frequently spend much of their time afraid that they will lose it. Power does not set people free. Lady McBeth had power, but was terrorised of losing it. She was willing to kill every perceived threat until finally she destroyed herself. Power and terror go together. People with power are terrified of those with no power, because, as Baxter used to say, there is nothing to take away.
The theory is that everyone should be terrified of those with power. The reality is that those with power are terrified of those who have none, and worst of all do not want any.
The twin towers in New York were built to provoke envy and they were extremely successful. Any blame for their destruction must rest with those who built them. Garbage in garbage out. Toppling bronze statues of those you think are dictators has always been sport in the USA. September 11 was the day the USA invaded Chile and killed the democratically-elected leader. History means all of it.
The result of the loss of an architectural symbol should have been a re-evaluation of architectural and urban design attitudes. There was not even a discussion.
Egalitarian architecture takes envy out of the equation, and terrorism goes away because no one has anything to be afraid of. Pete Seager sang about peace, but he also lived a life which showed how peace might be possible. The humility of his architecture set an example for all to follow.
Andrew was right to suggest that the seven deadly sins are currently thriving within USA “culture”. Environmentalists all over the world agree that the real questions today are spiritual. The so-called war on terror has been nothing more than an excuse for avoiding self-reflection. One way of cultivating virtue might be to create a virtuous built-environment. Participation and identity rather than graffiti, for example. Urban environments engendering peace rather than violence. You can do all this for yourself. No one else needs to be involved.
If the USA were to devote its energies to promoting virtue rather than terror the planet might just have a chance of survival.
Thoughts in response to reading Andrew Coralik’s book “Enabling terrorism”.