July 30, 2006

Why do fences make good neighbors?

This question was posed by Robert Fost to his wall-mending neighbor in a poem titled "Mending Wall" written by Frost in 1919. Though the infamous line from the poem is "Good fences make good neighbors," if one reads the entire poem, one realizes that Frost questioned the whole fence making enterprise. An excerpt from the poem, courtesy of bartleby.com :
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down!" I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
Frost's poem is very pertinent given two recent manifestations of fencing : (1) the New York Times (June 18) design challenge for the USA-Mexico border and (2) electronic gates for private homes reported by the Wall Street Journal (July 28). Case #1 Thirteen architects and planners were asked to design the US-Mexico border. Five submitted drawings and the remainder declined. The Times reported that those who declined did so "because they felt it was a purely political issue." The five submissions included - James Corner, of Field Operations, submitted 'a kind of Bush meets Gore hybrid' plan of sustainable energy and enterprise production. - Calvin Tsao, of Architectural League of New York and Tsao & McKown, proposed "a series of small, developing cities." - Eric Owen Moss employed the idea of the paseo to develop the Glass Forest, a wall of surface columns and underground exhibition space. - Enrique Norten, of TEN Arquitectos, proposed highway construction. Norten sees Mexico of the future as Spain is now : from "a border country [to] part of a greater community." - Antoine Predock's concept is the most esoteric. He states that while the border will 'discourage you from crossing...the message would be one of good will.' A fence as a message of good will? If one looks closely at Frost's poem, there are a few more salient lines that are not often quoted. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence Case #2 In 1972, architect Oscar Newman wrote Defensible Space. The idea of defensible space and its many iterations is still with us today. The defensible space theory in brief is that smaller, more private areas, especially around the home, will promote territorial behavior in residents which would result in lower levels of crime and other uncivil behaviors. One famous iteration of the theory is Jane Jacobs' (1961) "eyes on the street" explanation of street life in Greenwich Village, New York. The defensible space theory has been used for less common good purposes, including the "privatization of the architectural public realm" (see Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 1992: 226). and scholarship on gating and gated communities. The Wall Street Journal wrote about a television writer and producer, now living in Greenwich, CT, as one of many house-owners who have installed remote-controlled gates. The producer justified his purchase thus, 'I get apprehensive when there is nothing separating me from people selling things.' This is a disheartening response to Frost's question : What was I walling in or walling out?

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