Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Great Escape: Nostalgia, Ski Resorts and Psychological Gratification

During my recent ski trip to Colorado, certain observations led me to reflect about contemporary trends in building. Dropping by in Vail, I noticed that some massive construction projects were underway. As we were making our way to the gondola, the main building in the village that I had used frequently before getting on my skis had disappeared. In its place was now a gigantic hole with underground parking under construction. The pictures along the surrounding construction fence featured renderings of the future multi-use development and an accompanying list of added functions and amenities that did not exist before in the prior complex designed in the 1970’s Brutalist style ubiquitous in American ski areas (the modern ski tourism industry arose after World War II, with Vail itself being established only since the 1960’s.) Looking closer at the renderings it was obvious that the planners and developers at Vail sought to remake the drab Brutalist village into a nearly authentic Austrian village, down to the smallest detail. The new Lionshead village would match the architecture, proportions and overall feel of the ski area’s central core, Vail Village, which dutifully imitates the spaces of a small medieval European town.

The fact that the new development at Lionshead abandoned the modernist style for a historicist one was of no significance. Though the Brutalist structures stressed functionalism and ruggedness against extreme alpine weather, they were ugly and served poorly the role of scenic backdrop. What seems to have defined stylistically new development in ski villages in the U.S. is a modern vernacular often referred to as ‘mountain’ architecture, which uses lots of heavy timber framing, multiple little gables and traditional horizontal windows throughout the fa├žade and glazed wood balconies similar to Swiss chalets. Small, windy pedestrian streets complement this vernacular, and open public plazas are framed by the vernacular facades in such a way so as to recall a European village without actually being literally European.

It was in the deliberate abandonment of this modern ‘mountain’ vernacular that I realized that the new development revealed a trend that many designers engrossed in theory should take the time to examine. The culture and psychological reality that are Las Vegas and Disneyworld has become pervasive to the extent that the developers at a ski resort have no interest in evolving a contemporary vernacular but instead recreate a past reality to the minutest detail that never existed in the Rockies. Granted, Vail has always been a little bit different from other ski resorts in its focused effort in establishing itself as a European-style ski oasis in the middle of an area that until relatively recently was dominated by mining and frontier settlements. Yet the architecture of old Vail Village is more suggestive than literal in evoking central European vernaculars. Judging from the renderings, the new Lionshead village (or Arrabelle as it is called) goes beyond literal copying, achieving an almost exaggerated celebration of the central European vernacular.

It used to be that resorts fulfilled functional needs of tourists: it provided a place to enjoy oneself physically, whether by swimming at the pool, relaxing in the spa, or by sunbathing lazily. So long as those physical needs were met, the International style of architecture was appropriate, as its emphasis on mass dwellings, flexibility in generating new building types and ease of construction responded to the rapid growth of post-war tourisms. Now, the tourists have brought an additional need: psychological gratification. The need to escape from the everyday world, a service often provided by novels, plays, and films is now being sought from built environments. It seems that the trend in American resorts is toward fulfilling the visitors’ longing for a world beyond their daily realities, as from time and place as possible. Wishing to return to a time and place that is familiar without having actually having to experience what life was really like for people of that time is a powerful force influencing the design of places today. Modernism was never about escaping reality. Rather it was about coming to terms with it in the driest and most objective way to such a degree that it appears oppressive to many. Few everyday people dream of escaping to some Modernist utopia for rest and recreation. Such environments are often seen as austere, even surreal.

Though the use of historicism in resort areas is of no surprise given the expectations of the tourist, I find that similar forces are at work in the design of urban spaces intended for everyday use. Locales with little to no history now want to instantly erect town centers evocative of a time and place that never was part of the municipality to begin with. The diligent imitation of Victorian era town squares and American Main Streets offer the chance to mentally escape from the fact that one lives in modern times and has adapted to a completely different set of notions about time and space.

Architecture has become as much about experience than the meanings of the built form itself. The five senses have always crucially influence the way humans experience a building, but such stimuli, I find, are heavily altered by memory and self-delusion. We see what we want to see, feel what we want to feel, etc. When the contrary happens, in which we see what we don’t want to see, the experience is jarring and a violation of our senses, something the Modernist avant garde often seemed to forget. When one goes for a ski vacation, one wants to pretend he or she is in an Austrian alpine village and anything less is but a revelation that skiing is simply a physical activity, not an all-encompassing cultural experience. When one goes to the New Urbanist town center to shop, one pretends the area will be animated in ways similar to town centers one hundred years ago, ignoring the reality that there are far fewer number and types people that actually live and work in this area than once was the case in the past.

This yearning to escape mundane reality by building fantasy implies, in my opinion, a loathing of the present and insecurity about the future. The present is unsatisfying and the future is alienating, and inventing new forms and stretching untested possibilities seem to be not worth the effort (and maybe not as marketable). Psychological need and nostalgia shields us from the difficult spiritual exercise of the creating art and ascertaining the distinctive aesthetic expression of our contemporary society. Somehow, seeking refuge in the reconstruction of the past seems cowardly in the face of present and future architectural problems.

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