The America Issue

Mark Lee & Florencia Rodriguez

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48: America

Editors’ Letter

2020 will certainly be a year to remember. While some of the events that made it so singular can be listed objectively, it’s too early to understand the significance it will have in the long term. We do know, however, that a deep understanding requires critical thinking, engagement, and reformulation.

More than a year ago, we were invited to coedit this issue of Harvard Design Magazine—originally planned to publish last spring. After a couple of conversations and a long and enthusiastic meeting in Cambridge, we decided to call it America. We weren’t naive about the debates the concept carried with it; in fact we were eager to include those. While it was impossible at the time to imagine what would happen only a few months later, it was clear to us that in recent history and in the 20th century, the symbolic construct of “America” introduced a strong paradigm across the globe. And at the onset of this new decade, that paradigm was ripe for redefinition. Even before 2020, our world was in a state of upheaval, and the social and environmental systems that defined it were on the verge of a breakdown.

In the first two months of the year, our inboxes were full of invigorating texts, and we were almost ready to get to the last phases of the editorial process. But COVID-19 suddenly turned our lives upside down. At that point, many issues that were already part of our editorial agenda—growing inequity, social justice, housing, and global warming, for example—became even more crucial. And then Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s lives were brutally taken. Floyd’s devastating last words, “I can’t breathe,” inspired global scrutiny and encapsulated the history of institutionalized racism.

Our editorial mission gained clarity and immediacy. We knew we needed more time to dig into the recent past in order to reflect on the present, and through that introspection, to open opportunities to project—or at least sense—possible futures. That paradigmatic “America” of the 20th century had been defined by a mission of spreading an ethos of progress, openness, and democracy. But there was an underbelly that needed to be confronted.

The paradigm grew during and immediately after the world wars. The United States made considerable efforts to establish world peace and to represent itself as the land of freedom, the land of all imaginable dreams. Cultural institutions were integral to those efforts. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, created in 1929, presented several exhibitions with political agendas, and the entertainment industry produced movies and television to further the concept. Part of our role here is to critically analyze how many of those structures were created to support privilege and a slanted model for society.

Flourishing capitalism and consumerism, the strengthening of the private sector and public resources, and policies that enhanced international relations and treaties resulted in an expanded and reinforced territorial fabric throughout the country. Much of this was built on the strength of the war industry, factories, and new materials, along with the expansion of corporations, education, a well-designed system of communications, and advertising.

The use of “cultural megaphones” led to processes of Americanization around the globe. Along with new ideas about welfare came the aesthetic realm: jeans, movies, popular music, cosmopolitism, diversity, a thirst for the avant-garde, and a quest for innovation made “America” much more than a lifestyle. The built environment was, of course, crucial to these phenomena. The growth of the Great American Cities and their sprawling suburbs found a powerful counterpoint in territorial—and mythologized—units or precincts, such as the desert and the road.

After decades of cool innovations, the space race, and cultural domination that had led to American preeminence, the postwar boom started to fade out. The voracious global financial market resulted in a universal triumph of capital. Mark Edmundson noted the shift from a passive to an aggressive disposition in American culture through the rise of American football over baseball over the last century. As the journalist Mary McGrory noted, “Baseball is what we were, football is what we have become.” The best of traditional American values—humility, tenacity, a can-do spirit, and a plain old decency—have been overwhelmed by some of the worst—sanctimoniousness, overexposure, decadence, self-indulgence, and intolerance.

This transition—which affected all aspects and spheres of life, and propagated layers of global conflict—brings us back to the state of extreme crises where we now find ourselves. While many people feel that this moment represents the postapocalyptic fall of an empire, others are optimistic and foresee the emergence of empowered groups and new and more just orders. What is widely shared is the consciousness of an imminent existential threshold.

As historians, architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and planners equipped to imagine sustainable futures, we are in the position to promote alternatives that align with America’s identities, vast and complex as they are. This issue of Harvard Design Magazine introduces diverse voices that reflect on America’s design and sociocultural recent past and present. Projects, taxonomies, dialogues, texts, and spatial interpretations are all excuses to trigger, explore, and enlighten possible Americas. They allow us to delve into issues relevant to small cities, towns, and rural areas—as well as major urban centers—and study barriers and opportunities facing communities across the country.

We mourn the losses and the tragic consequences of the pandemic. We also see the opportunity of a pivotal moment—for grappling with issues including inequity, racism, housing, and climate change. As some forms of globalism appear to be in retreat and the hegemony of American culture is waning, we invite you to reexamine the prevailing notion of America—as a concept, as a culture, as a place, as a state of mind, as a country, as a history.

Every editorial piece is finite and incomplete in its nature. And it is in that openness where the possibility of beauty and relevance can reside. There will necessarily be gaps in the narrative; we did not intend to reach one unique or absolute conclusion to the questions we have posed. But we hope that this constellation of ideas and profound reflections has the potential to encourage dialogue and inform new meanings.