Squandered Land: An Update From Architects & Urbanists Biking Across the Country

City Terrain National
(Courtesy Peter Murray)

(Courtesy Peter Murray)

[ Editor’s Note: Peter Murray, of the New London Architecture center, together with a dozen architects and planners, is biking from Portland, Oregon to Portland Place in London, studying how cities are responding to the demand for better cycling infrastructure. He reports from the start of his ride. The Architect’s Newspaper is USA media sponsor of the trip and will post periodic updates of these architects on bicycles. ]

When the author Bill Bryson moved back to the US from England he wrote a goodbye book entitled Notes from a Small Island. I was frequently reminded of Bryson’s analysis as I rode through Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. By comparison to these great open spaces England is neat and manicured, with everything in its place.

These huge states are shockingly profligate with their land—your barn falling down? let it, and build another next door; getting a new truck? leave the old one to rust in the field. Large areas of this beautiful countryside are disfigured by rotting trailers, wheel-less automobiles and discarded junk.

Cities stretch out for miles and miles with low rise sheds and malls and scrub—Helena, capital of Montana, was probably the worst example we came across.When I get home I shall never again criticize the UK’s Green Belt policy; this key part of our planning system stops any development in a ring around the edge of major cities thus effectively restricting endless urban sprawl.

(Courtesy Peter Murray)

(Courtesy Peter Murray)

To be fair to Helena they have done a pretty good job of improving their city center. Traces of the huge wealth created by the prolific output of gold from Last Chance Gulch can be seen in the heavy stone buildings of the CBD, St. Helena Cathedral, based on Cologne’s Domkirche, and the imposing State Capitol by Frank Mills Andrews. There is an open greensward outside the cathedral and Last Chance Gulch itself—now the main street—has been partially pedestrianized with spaces to sit out and for live performances.

The landscapes we have cycled through have been awesome, but it is hard to say the same about the buildings. I yearn to see an elegantly detailed residence, a modern barn that has the charm of those that are now disintegrating. I long for a building positioned in the landscape with the elegance of composition of a Tuscan estate. So many buildings look like they have come out of a catalogue and just plonked anywhere. We’re a bunch of architects cycling through beautiful places, meeting friendly, welcoming people, served outsize meals, but we’re starved of ARCHITECTURE!

I guess it is because there is so much space out here that development in such exquisite surroundings is taken so lightly. A map of the whole of Britain is just 1:10,000; the map I used to trace our route across the US is 1:3,800,000! That says it all really. When you’re a small island you care for every bit of it, sometimes too much, so that development is thwarted by conservation; but when you’ve got a lot of something, it’s easy to squander it.

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