Several people have sent me this very interesting op/ed article from the New York Times, titled Designing a Fix for Housing. I have the highest regard for Jeanne Gang, however, there is much that disappoints me about this piece.
Gang and Greg Lindsay say, “Too often during the bubble, banks and builders shunned thoughtful architecture and urban design in favor of cookie-cutter houses that could be easily repackaged as derivatives to be flipped, while architects snubbed housing to pursue more prestigious projects.” This is a tremendous understatement in my opinion. Subsequently, I do not believe that the rest of the article addresses the ‘architect’s snubbing’ of housing with any significant solution.
Architects to Solve the World’s Problems?
The article is written from a typical outsider architect’s perspective – Everyone else screwed up housing, and if the world would just listen to us houses would be beautifully designed…
I do not disagree with the argument that municipal restrictions limit the creativity and even financial feasibility of good design, but these regulations came about through architectural lobbying and community democracy. Additionally, most municipalities allow Planned Developments or PUD’s that allow a new master plan to have variances or even circumvent the existing zoning code.
The book The Politics of Place: A History of Chicago Zoning, cites the evolution of the “four-plus-ones” in the early 1970’s Chicago. These efficiently designed, dense housing blocks were a developer response to solving the cheapest most economical equation for apartment buildings. Once these popped up all over the lakefront, residents protested and the zoning ordinance was rightly changed to dictate more sensitive residential design.
Houston Texas is the best (or worst) example of an American city with no municipal zoning ordinance, and the result is a unconnected and poorly planned mega city. In Houston’s case, the result was not a beautiful city designed by architects, it was a horribly planned urban landscape created by developers who had only economic rules to follow.
It seems to me that Gang and Lindsay are proposing that municipalities give the power to the architects to fix the housing landscape. This sounds great, but the reality is that not all architects are Jeanne Gang, in fact 99.9% are not. Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project is an example of the architects’ naivety giving way to a poor planning solution. The designers said that by turning the buildings inward towards central courtyards, the low-income residents would have a utopian community space of their own to share and make wonderful. Consequently the reality was the designed planning solution moved the low income community away from the street where it was unable to be patrolled or controlled, and massive crime ensued. These designed solutions have since been razed.
The Education of the Consumer
The inconvenient truth is that municipal regulation is what keeps most architects in business. Chicago requires an architect’s stamp to be on construction drawings. Also most developers would much rather pay an architect to navigate the Illinois Accessibility Code, Chicago Zoning Ordinance, the UL assembly databases, Chicago Building Code, etc. than do it themselves. If these regulations did not exist I would be willing to bet that most developers would not hire architects and would just hire a General Contractor to build a combination of what they sketch in their proforma combined with some images of other projects.
Similarly I believe many CPA’s would tell you that a confusing tax code is good for business. I do not think that this is an ethical or productive business model for the design community, but it is a reality. Therefore before preaching to change the zoning code and give all the power to the design community, I believe architects need to put a system in place that convinces the consumer (not necessarily the developer) of our value, allows affordable access to this value, and engages the architect economically at the homebuyer level.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em Join ‘Em
As a child I went to a sailing camp as a camper for several summers. I had a fantastic time, and later worked as a counselor there in College. As a Senior Counselor, we used to say “You don’t know what it’s like to be a camper until you are a trainee; you don’t know what it’s like to be a trainee until you are a junior counselor; and you don’t know what it’s like to be a junior counselor until you are a senior counselor. We were always referring to the control that each hierarchical figure has on its subordinates in terms of the activity structure and individual freedoms. Of course when you are a camper you do not realize the structure and limitations behind your daily activities because you are so busy having fun.
Similarly, as I now work as the design director for a developer that hires outside architecture firms, I feel that I now know much better what it’s like to be an architect than I did working for design-only service firms. The reality is the developer is in control of the ship, and at the end of the day the developer just wants the architect to do what he says. There is no time or system built-in for a real round-table design process, and the architect burns all of his time thinking outside-the-box pro-bono.
The end-user, or homebuyer in the housing case, really isn’t the client, because the developer typically just builds what worked the last time. So when an architect proposes something in the design that he may consider better design for the homebuyer, more times than not, the idea will be shot down if it is not something that the developer has done before.
In my opinion the simplest and most direct solution for architects to engage the future of housing and “Design the Fix for Housing” is to MAKE HOUSES.
The old system of an architect selling his services to a developer just doesn’t work. Just look at the 1.6 million cookie-cutter houses that were built in 2006. If architects really want to fix housing through design, I do not believe it is time well spent to lobby municipalities and work out new financial models for funding homebuyers.
Steve Jobs did not spend his time lobbying to give technology companies control of the music industry. Over a long period of time he simply developed great products that consumers did not even know they needed until they had them. He then saw opportunity in the music industry and integrated his great products with great interfaces to deliver incredible experiences to the end-user. Steve Jobs did not work for the music companies or some other large industry – he worked for us, the consumer.
Similarly architects who want to fix housing design need to just make houses. This could be a number of scenarios from creating a fund to buy foreclosures and rent them, to working with manufacturers to make and sell an affordable vanity that isn’t terrible. I simply wish that architects would just take all of the pieces and parts that go into a typical production home and re-arrange them into something better. There are so many small scale applications of architectural talent that can make housing better if we just focus some of our energy away from the AIA’s Architectural Record magazine, and turn it towards the NAHB’s Builder magazine.
Whatever the scenario is, it involves architects who want to fix housing rethink what exactly it is that their firm provides. There is certainly a place for architects in housing but it will first take a retooling of the architectural industry before we can even think about restructuring the municipal codes and financial systems. To use the Apple example, architects need to find a way to affordably deliver well designed homes that homebuyers do not know they can’t live with out until they have them.
Architects need to stop judging the failures of housing design from the outside, fix our own internal issues, and get our hands dirty on the inside.