Charles Mackay is a British academic with a visiting fellowship at an elite American university. They are strange places, but through America’s soft power, they tend to spread their strangeness abroad, with English-speaking countries most susceptible. But forewarned is forearmed, so here are your warnings. Here’s his first entry. Here’s the next.
A Quick Tour:
The easiest way to begin is to relate my most significant piece of culture shock: the built environment. Ironically, but relevantly, my campus is an island of relief from this – a safe space for Europeans lost in the tarmac wilderness of the Midwest. It is a series of expansive lawn courtyards surrounded by tasteful late-twentieth-century Gothic department buildings and dorms. Where back home one would have seen a stone relief of a little robed scholar toying with a compass, here perches a little athlete holding tight his pigskin. Totally adorable.
But the nearest major city – in fact, every city west of Interstate 80, at least – is aptly described in the following way:
“There were almost endless leagues of giant buildings, each in its garden, and ranged along paved roads fully two hundred feet wide. They differed greatly in aspect, but few were less than five hundred feet square or a thousand feet high. Many seemed so limitless that they must have had a frontage of several thousand feet, while some shot up to mountainous altitudes in the grey, steamy heavens. They seemed to be mainly of stone or concrete, and most of them embodied the oddly curvilinear type of masonry noticeable in the building that held me. Roofs were flat and garden-covered, and tended to have scalloped parapets. Sometimes there were terraces and higher levels, and wide cleared spaces amidst the gardens. The great roads held hints of motion, but in the earlier visions I could not resolve this impression into details.
In certain places I beheld enormous dark cylindrical towers which climbed far above any of the other structures. These appeared to be of a totally unique nature, and shewed signs of prodigious age and dilapidation. They were built of a bizarre type of square-cut basalt masonry, and tapered slightly toward their rounded tops. Nowhere in any of them could the least traces of windows or other apertures save huge doors be found. I noticed also some lower buildings—all crumbling with the weathering of aeons—which resembled these dark cylindrical towers in basic architecture. Around all these aberrant piles of square-cut masonry there hovered an inexplicable aura of menace and concentrated fear, like that bred by the sealed trap-doors.” (H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow Out of Time”)
This is a pretty fair description of Chicago, where I go to walk down vast marble-floored corridors supported by gargantuan steel beams and walled only by impossibly broad and deep panes of perfectly clear consistent glass, so to obey the arbitrary commands of officials with unmemorable faces and ensconce myself in great steel tubes which ascend and scream across the grey skies.
All to deliver presentations at conferences. Stop complaining about the Birmingham-Edinburgh train or the X5 from Oxford to Cambridge.
Suicidal repairmen of Project Purity, veterans of the Second Battle for Hoover Dam, and former residents of Sanctuary Hills will recognize the small town in which my university is built. The post-apocalyptic empty space is pretty much par for the course for the Midwest, a feature of urban mis-design, not just industrial decline. Wide pointless gaps of flat asphalt or struggling grass separate low buildings, as if once a town stood there before the Reapers’ beams cut a fine-lattice grid across it and through its upper stories. It is built not for people to live in, but for cars to travel through.
Post-apocalyptic imagery serves a political purpose. Science fiction does, too. And so does architecture. But architects are not always honest about their intentions: the High Modernists who transformed Chicago from the gorgeous playground of the Beaux Artistes into a Lovecraftian nightmare of space-black oblongs told their readers that they glorified the simplicity of the proletariat through their reduction of any form to function.
They lied. The function of their buildings was to raise the lords of capital into the sky, to carry out their spiritual ascension into unity with Crawling Nyarlathotep, and render themselves our masters, and the bleakness, mystery and ugliness of their skyscrapers’ forms reflects this.
The American metropolis is a hellscape that makes seen sinister primordial forces once invisible in the collective unconscious: liberalism and capitalism are the chthonic chimaera of selfishness and greed, programmed into a great machine.
The modern American townscape, then, is a hellscape that tells us what these forces wreak.
The empire’s prettiest provinces, the places that escape this fate, are built to recall Europe. They are prestigious campuses and East Coast old-colonial towns, reserved for the rich, whose official ideology repudiates that continent as it repudiates all history and rootedness. Like Lovecraft’s ancient aliens have knowledge of mankind only through their prophetic sciences, the new empire’s patricians have contact with those they patronise by their token taxes only through documentaries, Vox editorials, and special senior-year courses on development economics. Like Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, their plan for the future of the cosmos is colonial and hegemonic, and bears no more interest in the trivial and tribal loves of the Midwest cis-humans than the Old Ones’ considers our fortunes.
No empire is eternal. Glass breaks. Steel melts.