Book Review: America Town

America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire by Mark L. Gillem

While the imperialist motives and actions of the United States are heavily researched, watched, and disseminated, the exportation of America's suburban sprawl to foreign soil via the construction and planning of military bases is devoid of the attention it deserves. The subject deals not only with the physical make-up of the housing, retail, and other subsidiary functions servicing the military personnel and their families, but also with the relationship between the United States and the foreign country, the host. Mark Gillem -- and architect, planner, professor, and former U.S. Air Force officer -- approaches the subject from a multi-disciplinary background, and he naturally makes the study multi-disciplinary in its scope and conclusions. Rather than focusing on one particular aspect of an already narrow topic, Gillem broadens his approach to embrace the social and political, as well as the architectural.
After a couple brief and cursory chapters on Empire and American imperialism, Gillem takes aim on the subject at hand: the effects of the physical planning and construction of military bases in Japan, South Korea, and Italy. Numerous effects stand out, many of them subsidiary to the planning practices of the military, like the proliferation of prostitution and other "services" aimed at the primarily male and single personnel at some bases. But the effects that do stem from planning practices paint a picture of a government that, as a guest, treats its host in a manner that could best be described as terrible. From making the host pay for most of the construction and infrastructure to taking more and more of the host's land to enable the construction of sprawling residential areas, beyond the highly consumptive landing strips and other pure military elements, the US stubbornly perpetuates a practice of inefficient, automobile-dependent land use and the consumption of more and more land for ornamental lawns in the name of security.
Certainly these practices will come as no surprise to people who pay attention to suburban sprawl, as won't the juxtaposition of the "void" of American bases with the "solid" of the adjacent local buildings. Additionally, the actions the military has undertaken since 2001 -- when the military was in a period of declining presence in foreign lands, only to be reversed by acts of terrorism -- are disappointing, if not shocking; namely, the decision to further insulate the base from its context. In effect this decision makes the host an enemy, as terrorism can arise from anybody anywhere, supposedly. It's an unfortunate trend that goes against gains made in Italy, for example, where housing for military personnel blends extremely well into the surrounding context and offers an alternative to the continued, insensitive exportation of American practices in foreign lands.