Thursday, December 23, 2010

Suburban Railhead Aesthetics

Rain pours from the heavens and collects in sheets in the parking lot of the Willow Creek Transit Center. Impervious surface interrupted only by the odd pothole providing a low point in which the rain waters can collect. It is water constantly in motion but also stagnant, shimmering with the diaphanous light cast by the streetlights. A spine of track cuts through the darkness and pulls this desolate stretch of Beaverton, this sterile, paved and ordered stretch of suburban strip development into the maw of Portland. Here in the darkness, the fog and the rain there is almost something strangely beautiful if not otherworldly about the suburbs. That absence of human activity – the very feeling that many suburban dwellers wanted – is finally pervasive. It takes the fog to depress the sounds of cars and the bright hiss of neon-lights from the unerringly uniform commercial strip development to create this. It takes that dampening of sight and sound, leaving only that singular gleam of the railhead: this strip of infrastructure that seems to stretch on into the infinity.

Without the rail, Beaverton is just suburban America: as easily situated here as anywhere. The same shops reproduced, with slight variation across the sweep or North America. It is real estate without place - human settlement without identity, or even a distinguishing birthmark. It represents a sterile ideal, isolated from the other. Suburbs are designed to keep them out. They reduce us into a singular non-identity based on uniform consumer spending choices rather than through ideas. Great stretches of this country are those descended from the suburban idea. These are people who now may feel some form of gripping nostalgia for strip malls, white walls and stucco; people who come to lack imagination because their sense of the world comes from watching rather than by doing. Novelty is developed in the fringe of narrow, often technologically motivated confines, rather than in any holistic sense. The suburbs, though they may be very temporary exude a sense of unchanging permanence. National brands seek to create a sense of perfect consistency, and their presence further reinforces this sense of temporal and emotional fixedness.

The irony is, as Joel Kotkin notes, the most innovative technology centers are suburban rather than urban.  Sterile environs drive software and technology.  Technology thrives on consistency.  Just as cities hate stars, those distant nuclear orbs that remind them of their insignificance, technology hates the unpredictable daily innovation that takes place on city streets.  It is crippled by the constant re-colonization of urban space and ideas to fill needs, only to fluidly dissolve.  Technology, for all it's fluidity, for all it's willingness to dictate changes in how we live, thrives on static environs.

The rail line then is perhaps beautiful because it is subversive. It both reinforces and represents a real threat to the underlying order. It is deeply post-modern: infrastructure is order, but it represents an alternative order, open to definition, interpretation and inventiveness, while still providing a means of prolonging and reinforcing the suburban landscape around. It is a seed for nascent land-use reinvention.  It allows entropy from the city access to hardened suburban lines.

The rain begins to pour harder as the train slides effortless through the sea of darkness and to the platform.

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