Normally when I fly into the DC Area, I’ve flown into Reagan National or Dulles. And the view from the window as you approach both of those places is pretty similar: miles upon miles upon miles of low-density suburban development. I mean, there are trees and things, but they’re kept in their place by the cookie-cutter mansions. However, this time I flew into Baltimore-Washington International, which is more or less in the countryside. And I realized that the Maryland countryside is pretty beautiful. I don’t have any pictures on me, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but the fields weren’t like other fields I’ve seen from other windows. They were so tiny and cute and cut through by little hedges. The plots were oddly shaped and joined at weird angles. And the houses stood forlorn at the edges of the plots.
I think there’s a sense, sometimes, that human habitation is inherently ugly: that the best it can do is spread itself out and integrate harmoniously into the landscape. I don’t believe that. I think that what is ugly is conformity and monotony, and that, as a consequence of the way that development works in America, that’s what we mostly have. And my example is warehouses. As I approached BWI, we started to fly over slightly more industrial surroundings. And they were still pretty beautiful. Warehouses and office parks have a fascinating shape to them: they’re arranged like chips on a semiconductor. And the roads flow around them in interesting, organic ways. Industrial buildings are beautiful because you don’t put up a hundred in a row that look exactly the same: each one is of a different size and shape, because each one has a different function.
As I flew in, I also saw this highway that was cut through by a creek that pooled into this pond that was just sort of plopped in amongst the buildings. Seeing that, I realized, “No one would have chosen for this water to be here.” When you fly across the country, and see the highways and railroads and subdivisions that blanket it and when you live in a city where all the streams are corralled or redirected, you forget that there’s a natural world underneath it. You think of nature as a place that you go to: it’s sort of set aside and distant and protected. It was strange to realize that this planet is covered in water that pretty much flows where and how it wants. We can redirect and try to manage it, but in the end, it has to go somewhere.