How Steve Jobs ended America’s ugliness

Ross Douthat

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the United States of America conducted a long experiment in ugliness. Our architects grew bored with beauty, our designers tired of elegance, our urban planners decided that function should trump form. We bulldozed row houses and threw up housing projects. We built public buildings out of raw concrete. We wore leisure suits and shoulder pads, buried heart-of-pine floors under shag carpeting, and panelled our automobiles with artificial wood.

This is the world in which Steve Jobs came of age. It was, not coincidentally, a world in which it became easy to believe that the United States was in decline. Our churches looked like recreation centres, and our rec centres looked like re-education camps. Our campuses and civic spaces were defaced by ziggurats of cement. Our cities had crime-ridden towers and white elephant shopping centres where the neighbourhoods used to be. Our suburbs were filled with what James Howard Kunstler described as the "junk architecture" of strip malls and ranch houses.

Then, gradually and haltingly, beauty began to make a comeback. A "new urbanist" movement championed a return to walkable neighborhoods, human-scale housing, and pleasant public spaces. Our clothes became less garish, our cars more curvaceous, our civic architecture less offensive. And most remarkably, our machines ceased to be utilitarian boxes, and became something beautiful instead.

When we think about what Jobs meant to turn-of-the-millennium America, this is the place to start: with the Apple founder's eye for grace and style, and his recognition of the deep connection between beauty and civilisation.

There would have been some sort of desktop computer without the Macintosh, some sort of popular smartphone without the iPhone, some kind of big-screen computer animation without Pixar. But there was no guarantee that any of these technological wonders would be so exquisite, or that the age of information would also be an age of artistry. Jobs wasn't an artist himself. But he was a curator, a critic and a patron. Whether he was deciding that the first Macintosh computer would feature beautiful typography or telling Pixar's animators to "make it great," he played a decisive role in restoring a kind of defiant aestheticism to American life.

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