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On zero-maintenance park benches, Soviet subway stations, and the hazards of reading too much into reflexive nostalgia for the past
A post circulating widely on social media decries a "social drift towards absolute simplification" in the objects that make up the world around us. It is a nostalgic case for incorporating more elaborate details into the physical world, and its author -- who self-appoints as "the cultural tutor" -- has won over surprising endorsements from people like Washington Post technology columnist Taylor Lorenz (who says "This thread will have you missing old timey design") and Kate Ferguson of British newspaper The Sun, as well as hundreds of thousands of audience "likes".
■ Up front, one ought to be suspicious of anyone who claims such an extraordinary title as "The Cultural Tutor" without establishing some sort of track record. There are no citations in Google Scholar under the name claimed on the website attached to the Twitter handle, which rather undermines the "tutor" title. Perhaps the author has simply been overlooked by academia. But it's also not unknown for people to use social-media posts that wax nostalgic as gateways to draw people into reactionary politics. "Old things are nice and everything modern is terrible" is a theme that reactionaries have used before. Audiences should always beware.
■ But even assuming the best about the original post and its author, the logic of the argument remains faulty. Some things are perfectly fine to render simply and consistently. It is more important that a bollard be dependable than ornate, that resources not be wasted on a phone booth that is inevitably destined for obsolescence, and that a safety railing be affordable before it is pretty.
■ It is delightful for communities to decide to make themselves aesthetically notable...but not if frivolities like customized streetlights are installed at the expense of less-adored features, like a dependable levee system or a reliable wastewater treatment plant.
■ Too often, it is easier to up-sell a community's trustees on highly visible ornaments that don't really matter than it is to get them to observe their real fiduciary duty to maintain the largely invisible features that keep modern life functional. And that's how a nation arrives at a C- grade for its infrastructure quality.
■ Mass production (of the type that "strips all identity away from things") lowers costs. And while that can come at a toll to details and ornamentation, sometimes fast replacement cycles beat aesthetic appeal. A modern Toyota sedan may not look as lovely as a classic muscle car, but it's massively safer and more reliable.
■ By the same token, ornamentation itself is not always the optimal design choice. Some people adore the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne aesthetics of a century ago, and both were consciously centered on selective details (as opposed to a Baroque or Gothic approach). Less indeed can be more.
■ The Soviet Union built elaborate subway stations, but it would have been better for humanity if their stores had contained enough bread. Inasmuch as public resources, in particular, are finite, it's no crime to expect balance between style and modesty.
■ Mass production, affordability, product consistency, reliability, safety, and efficiency can all be beautiful, too. And if that means park benches are a little plainer because they no longer require regular maintenance and doorbells sacrifice ornamentation so they can deliver security, then nothing all that irreplaceable has been lost.