Have you noticed that everything now looks the same? Your car, for instance. You probably drive an SUV (more than 50% of new car sales in the United States are SUVs), and every SUV pretty much looks like every other SUV. It is probably in some shade of white, gray or black, because the overwhelming majority of new cars are colorless. Yes, there are superficial differences, and yes we suffer over them as buyers and owners, but the truth is that these cars are substantially alike.
The demand for SUVs is such that even sports car manufacturers like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche are building them. A Lamborghini SUV? It’s a contradiction in terms, but if you spend enough time at Highland Park Village, you’ll see one in the wild. Even Bentley manufactures one, never mind that the SUV might just be the defining symbol of middle-class conformity.
Things used to be different, quite literally. A 1951 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, described the car as “hollow rolling sculpture.” Up until the 1970s, every manufacturer had its own unique identity, especially those from luxury automakers. A Jaguar was low and crouched, a BMW had a raked snout and round headlamps, a Volvo was a box, a Saab was a hunchback, a Mercedes had bubbly curves.
In the early 1980s that started to change, and our cars began to congeal toward a standard blobby mean. You might trace this shift to the Audi 5000, the first car with flush, aerodynamic styling, or perhaps to the Ford Taurus, a Tylenol caplet on four wheels. Is the SUV, then, the teleological endpoint in the century-long evolution of the automobile, an ideal blending of form and function? Perhaps, but it seems there is something more going on.
The SUV might be the most extreme, or at least the most glaring, example of creeping sameness, but that same evolutionary process is evident across our culture. Call it “The Flattening,” a gradual draining of character from just about every corner of our lives.
In architecture, this shift is remaking the places we live and work. To drive around Dallas (or any American city) is to be confronted by an endless series of cheaply constructed apartment blocks, three to five stories in height, with clunky beige bays that stretch for blocks on end. To call this “architecture” is an insult to the art. Rather, think of these buildings as spreadsheets bumped up to three dimensions.
Continue your drive to the suburbs and this aesthetic flattening is equally if not more acute. The cookie-cutter suburban development is not new — the form emerged in the postwar years, abetted by Federal housing and highway policies — but the scale and visual debasement of sprawl has accelerated dramatically.
I suspect we have all been lost in some newly constructed cul-de-sac community in Coppell or Frisco, where every house looks exactly like every other house. Compare those developments with Dallas neighborhoods like the M Streets or Cochran Heights, built for the middle-class in the interwar years. The houses in these communities are modest and uniform in scale, but nevertheless full of character and charm, each one distinct from the one next door.
Even in more upscale areas, like the Park Cities, there is a growing sense of conformity. It seems every new luxury home in these areas is in the “Transitional Modern” style, a kind of stripped down, whitewashed traditionalism that nods at minimalism, but from an exceedingly safe distance.
That same unthreatening, watered down modernistic traditionalism is the de facto style of home furnishing, across income scales. From Ikea to Wayfair, West Elm to Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel to Restoration Hardware, the offerings, in shades of taupe and gray, are roughly the same. That homogeneity is reinforced online by sponsored “influencers” and algorithm-driven advertising promoting visual group-think. This conformity appeals to a conservatism inherent in American culture, dating to its Calvinist roots. That ethos is especially prevalent in business-first Dallas. This is a corporate town, and management — especially middle-management — is inherently risk averse.
These aesthetic changes both reflect and are shaped by a shift in the way we think about the house. If we once thought of it as a multigenerational homestead, in our more mobile contemporary lives it is something closer to a commodity, like pork bellies or crude oil. In order to maximize that commodity’s value, it needs to appeal to as wide a buying audience as possible. House “flipping,” a practice that would have been unfathomable a century ago, is now celebrated in countless television series that encourage conventional renovations (open kitchens, cathedral ceilings) that boost values but lack any real character.
Sameness travels with us to work. The office tower sheathed in reflective glass has likewise become a cliche repeated ad nauseum. The idea of a replicable system that exploited and celebrated the possibilities of advanced technology was implicit in the development of modernism, but today we have reached a point where design is almost entirely driven by economics. That reflective glass skin is cheaper than the alternative, and even when other options might be of similar material cost, the regimentation of the construction industry means that the price for building something different is prohibitive. And so, more of the usual.
A sense of exhaustion with this aesthetic sameness might be at the root, at least in part, of a recent surge of interest in postmodern design, which generally has been reviled by modernists as a morally bankrupt apostasy. But at its best (admittedly, rare), this movement stands as an anarchic rejoinder to conventionality of all kinds. Preservationists, for whom the style was pariah, have lately raced to defend such postmodern landmarks as the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery (by pomo progenitors Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown), the dizzying interiors of New York’s 60 Wall Street (by architect Kevin Roche) and the even more dizzying Thompson Center in Chicago (by architect Helmut Jahn).
How did this happen? How did we end up with such a denuded culture? The truth is we encourage it with our economic behavior (we all want SUVs, and we want them to be as inexpensive as possible) and our political choices. It is not an accident that this process began in the 1980s, with the ascendance of a “greed is good” mentality and the pro-corporate policies of the Reagan era. But that shift has accelerated in this century, propelled by the rise of private equity and the analytic capabilities of the tech industry. In a climate that demands ever greater efficiencies, character and quality, which tend to travel as a couple, have trouble surviving.
Baseball offers a vivid demonstration of the reductive aesthetic price of our reliance on the methodologies of finance capitalism. As Michael Lewis recounted in his 2003 bestseller, Moneyball, in the 1990s a few teams figured out how to exploit inefficiencies in the baseball marketplace. Soon enough, every team had an analytics department dependent on the tools of economics. With every team looking to extract the same mathematical advantages, the sport has become increasingly tedious, forcing the major leagues to adopt a series of draconian rule changes. A similar process has reshaped professional basketball, with analytics prompting an increasing emphasis on three-point shooting. Kirk Goldsberry, a professor of geography at the University of Texas and former executive of the San Antonio Spurs, has described this as an era of Sprawlball. Goldsberry’s solution, as in baseball, is a change in rules to promote a wider variety of playing styles.
This leaves us with the question, “What rules and changes in behavior do we need to adopt to ensure we don’t all end up with a car that looks just like our neighbor’s car, parked in front of a house that looks just like our neighbor’s house?”
I would suggest a shift in economic policy (and I’m not sure what that would be) to incentivize long-term profit over quarterly growth. But whatever the solutions, there will be no hope of implementing them until there is agreement that we’re no longer satisfied with the status quo. That’s a tough ask, given that our consumer culture has given middle-class Americans a high level of material comfort, whatever the aesthetic qualities of that material.
What could force that kind of broad shift in our culture, then? Perhaps it will take a different kind of flattening to shatter our sense of security. Our changing climate leaves us ever more vulnerable to environmental catastrophe. The recent “thousand year flood,” our record-breaking heat, and collapse of our electric grid portend a future of escalating crises.
Reckoning with that threat will require a paradigm shift in our thinking, and that change will have the potential to shift our aesthetic culture. What would that look like? In architecture, a move away from the cookie-cutter and a return to a more regionally driven form of design.
In the meantime, we can begin to take matters into our own hands. Instead of buying the same SUV as the folks next door, we could not buy a car at all. Or at least not two. Demanding, better designed, more attractive streets and improved mass transit options would also be a major step forward.
For the moment, however, expect more of the same.