The author of this book is a novelist by trade, with eight completed works already under his belt. However, having had no formal architectural training, his understanding of the subject in general, and what we have done to the physical fabric of our country in specific, is profound, enlightening and deeply important. For despite what we might imagine, "buildings foster certain kinds of behavior in humans." And our rush to pave over the nation with strip malls, urban sprawl, industrial parks, and seven-lane freeways ("anti-places") all tend to suppress and distort our better natures.
Reading this book is both humorous and disheartening at the one and same time. It is humorous and easy to read, because the author's writing style is mature, articulate, and witty - clearly one of the quirks of his being a novelist. Disheartening, because it plainly documents how American cities have devolved into bleak, relentless, noisy, squalid, smoky, smelly, explosively expanding, socially unstable, dehumanizing sinkholes of industrial foulness congested with ragtag hordes of racing automobiles.
In response to the tragedy of our cities, we seek escape. After the war, most Americans jumped into the wagon and fled for the suburbs. However, even there we find no guarantee of spiritual or physical ease. Cut off from grocery stores, city-centers, cafes, and work, we end up spending half our life (not to mention half our income) "sitting inside a tin can on the freeway." We have become "a drive-in civilization," scuttling between non-descript office malls, "schools that look fertilizer factories," warehouse-like grocery stores, paved-over mega malls, and the congested cities we left behind in the first place - all because none of these places are within walking or biking distance after having fled to the suburbs.
In fact, life in the suburbs is so unsatisfactory that we seek alternate escape routes, having no other place to flee. The majority of our free time is spent glued in front of the TV screen or at the theatre, where we catch glimpses of a better world. When we are not in either of those places, we "escape to nature" via a weekend camping trip (because nature knows how to design esthetically-pleasing places) or head to Disneyland. Ah, Disneyland....
"The public realm in America became so atrocious in the postwar decades that the Disney Corporation was able to create an artificial substitute for it and successfully sell it as a commodity." Americans love Disney world, as the author points out, because it is only social terrain left that has not been colonized by the car. Although we may not realize it on a conscious level, "The design quality of Disney World ... is about 1.5 notches better than the average American suburban shopping mall or housing subdivision - so Americans love it." Yet this fantasy land is "ultimately less satisfying than reality, and only deepens our hunger for the authentic."
In essence, the book is one long screed against shoddy civic design, car-centered development, single-use zoning laws (a subject that enrages the author to the point of profanity), and loss of excellence and beauty in architectural design. In place of these, the author wishes to reinvigorate community connectivity, enliven the public sphere, enthrone commonsense zoning laws, and start designing beautiful, lasting structures - just like we used to. As the author reminds us, "In such a setting, we feel more completely human. This is not trival." The alternative? Continuing on the "garbage barge steaming off to Nowhere."