In my travels, which thankfully are becoming more frequent again, I increasingly find myself returning to a mystifying question: Why has our advanced, modern and wealthy world ceased building beautiful neighborhoods?
I can visit many European cities and find lovely parts of town to walk through. Closer to home, there is no recently created neighborhood in my own Virginia, or nearby Maryland, that can compare to the older homes of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland.
The nicest residential neighborhoods of Washington, such as Georgetown, are typically quite old, predating World War II for most of their attractive structures and sometimes going as far back as the 18th century. Do I need to mention Prague, or the contrast between prewar and postwar German buildings?
A few caveats: The modern world has produced striking individual buildings, such as Guggenheim Bilbao or the Seattle Public Library, among many others. And there are neighborhoods that sell a kind of livability, such as the Kentlands in Maryland or Celebration, Florida, and it works well. It’s just not that beautiful or striking. In general, modern residential neighborhoods are not very aesthetically appealing.
This is not a purely subjective judgment (though it is my personal subjective judgment). If you ask the objective and measurable question of which neighborhoods tourists pay money to see, the answers are almost exclusively older neighborhoods, dating as far back as medieval times but pretty much never after 1940. Tysons Corner just isn’t as charming as Old Town Alexandria.
The decline of neighborhood beauty is all the more striking because of economic development. The world is not just two or three times wealthier now as it was in the 18th century, it is dozens of times wealthier.
That is why the increasing cost of craftsmanship, while real, cannot account for the decline of neighborhood beauty. And note that when it comes to interior design, product design, cinema and many other areas, there are still plenty of notable and beautiful creations, fueled of course by greater wealth.
One common explanation for the decline of urban and neighborhood beauty is the rise of the automobile, which makes it harder to develop such places. Surely cars and traffic can ruin many an attractive scene. Still, this is not even close to a full answer. For one thing, there are autos all over Paris, so at least in principle it ought to be possible to build in ways that are both highly attractive and allow for cars.
Or consider college campuses and their central quads, which typically do not have automobiles even today. The ones people admire are the older ones, not the newer campuses, which tend to be functional but aesthetically mediocre. The beauty of the University of California at Santa Barbara relies a lot on the surrounding scenery, not the architecture.
Another partially true explanation for the decline of neighborhood beauty concerns zoning. The beautiful medieval neighborhoods of Lübeck or Siena, for example, could not have been built in today’s regulatory environment.
Still, it is odd that wealthy modern society cannot work around those constraints to produce something more impressive than typical suburban cookie-cutter houses.
“Selection effects” are also often cited as an explanation for the decline of neighborhood beauty: The best neighborhoods from the past are (at least partially) preserved, conveying an overly glorified sense of the aesthetics of previous eras. It’s a good point, but it’s hard for me to name many recent neighborhoods that will go down in history as aesthetically admirable.
If I had to nominate an amazing and more recent neighborhood, it would be Diamond Head, in Oahu, Hawaii. It features one architectural gem after another, most of them postwar creations.
Diamond Head may also contain a partial answer to the larger mystery. Perhaps what modern neighborhoods are lacking is coordination — and not necessarily regulatory coordination. Medieval and Renaissance building styles were coordinated mostly because of the limits of available technologies and materials. A neighborhood could have a unified and pleasing overall look even if not every locale did.
These days, most homeowners decide to “go it alone.” Since they cannot hope for a latter-day Rothenberg ob der Tauber — namely, coordination around exterior excellence in a consistent style — they focus on the interior, and indeed interior design has made huge strides forward. The lovely and comfortable rooms of many modern houses, along with many other recent aesthetic creations, belie the common notion that the world is too depraved to express beauty.
In that equilibrium, the exteriors of houses often end up coordinated — around relatively inexpensive, highly functional, non-aesthetic features so common in suburbs. It doesn’t make sense to aim for a 19th-century-palace look if your neighbor is doing an Art Deco exterior.
So outward appearances suffer as homeowners save the real beauty for private purchases. And when beauty is privatized, it makes more sense to spend your money on other things — such as a really nice case for your iPhone.