“According to data released by New York City last fall, the Bank of America Tower produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any comparably sized office building in Manhattan. It uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building. It also performs worse than the Goldman Sachs headquarters, maybe the most similar building in New York—and one with a lower LEED rating. It’s not just an embarrassment; it symbolizes a flaw at the heart of the effort to combat climate change.”
“LEED has helped create a market for sustainability where one didn’t exist before. The problem is that real-estate developers have been able to game the system, racking up points for relatively minor measures. A USA Today series last October found developers accruing points simply by posting educational displays throughout a building and installing bike racks—and avoiding measures that might be more costly and effective.”
““What LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want—namely, green publicity, not energy savings,” John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin, testified before the House last year.”
In case you think that what follows is an exaggeration, please take a quick look at the recent articles listed below. They are only a small selection from a rising wave of articles on gentrification and the new super-rich. It’s interesting that the New York-based City Limits piece mentions Vancouver first; we are after all a world leader in unaffordability, non-regulation, luxury towers and property speculation. But the Paris article is particularly depressing. I’m not even going to go into the mega-developments inflaming Istanbul.
I’ve noticed little consideration of what the disappearance of the middle class is going to mean, in a concrete way, for cities, architecture and design.
As most of us are quickly priced out of our former living arrangements by the buying and investment practices of the new global elite—by the lack of regulation that allows these practices and by the real estate development industry that profits from them—most of us have only two choices. We must either migrate out to suburbs or outlying towns, or we can attempt to hang on in the cities, accepting smaller and smaller spaces, higher rents, higher land prices and rising property taxes. (Or move to another city altogether, hoping for a job in a place not subject to global speculation.) Meanwhile the very urban “density” supposedly designed to combat unsustainable urban sprawl now sits largely empty, awaiting infrequent or nonexistent visits from jet-setting owners, and sprawl proceeds apace while big developers make wild fortunes at everyone else’s expense.
It feels increasingly creepy that the “shelter magazines” promoting home decor haven’t really dealt with this yet, except in an accommodating manner. Yes, they’ve always pandered to the very rich, and to those who like to look at the homes of the very rich (myself included), and they will keep doing that. (Though I’m not sure how they’ll deal with the increasing unease about income disparity that is starting to seize all sectors of their readership, at both the top and near-bottom of the income scale.) Meanwhile there is now an entire industry in “decorating in small spaces” publications. Despite being a homewares designer myself, I realized lately that somewhere along the way I stopped buying shelter magazines. Maybe it’s that their disconnection from reality crossed a threshold into a creepy surreality that’s part Brazil, part David Foster Wallace, part generic dystopia. That whole world seems to have its fingers in its ears right now. La la la la I can’t hear you.
As for the design effects, the eradication of the middle class is almost certainly already affecting the design and quality of manufactured items, as well as the form of our architecture and the development of architectural styles, in ways no one seems to talk about. I’d be curious to know if anyone has yet inventoried these formal changes and market patterns. The loss of quality, the loss of design integrity, the cheapness at the low end, the grotesque baroquerie or conspicuous consumption at the top.
The first pattern that comes to mind is architects taking a back seat to developers and marketers in the profit-maximizing climate. The result is what’s known around here as “marketecture.” Increasingly the form of buildings has nothing to do with what city-dwellers or planners would like to see built, or that good architects would envision. Instead it has everything to do with what developers can get away under the limits imposed upon them by building regulations and horse-trading with city halls. The architect of these structures is pure profit maximization in partnership with what’s allowed by building codes. Insert those two parameters into a blender and what comes out at the other end is a generic glass tower. When a think tank of Harvard planners visited Vancouver last year, one of the remarked upon looking at downtown Vancouver from across False Creek “can you have good urbanism without good architecture?”
Pardon this meandering essay, which takes on too many points at once around the issues of income disparity, design, property speculation and a host of related problems. Just thinking aloud.
As for the design magazines and house porn I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at beautiful places, or that it’s wrong to be curious about how others live, nor that we should spend every minute in painful awareness that we’re fiddling while Rome burns, even if we are. It’s just that personally I don’t want to browse through any more photos of tiny, boring, contempo, cream-upholstery-with-dark-wood-veneer, cheaply built 600 sq.ft. condos that cost half a million bucks as if everything is still fine. Why are we willing to live in cramped and indebted conditions when all our surrounding culture and vibrancy is quickly exiting our cities and relocating in the suburban sprawl? While small living is good, environmentally speaking, cramped living must be offset by other cultural benefits and vibrancy. The thing is, the opposite is happening. The current speculative climate is driving those compensations away, leaving us just with unaffordability and urban sterility.
We should be pushing for multiple forms of regulation of the real estate industry, including tax deterrents and other mechanisms, and we should be forcing on governments the understanding that housing, like food, should not be viewed as just another class of asset or investment tool. Housing must be viewed as a human right and should be protected as such.
This will improve not only the affordability of our cities, and thus ensure the vibrant mix of people who live in them, but it will also improve the physical form of our cities, architecture and design. But I think the architecture and design communities can no longer behave as if they operate in a realm separate from an increasingly distorted political economy.
What can we do? Vote in civic elections, and make sure we don’t vote for any candidate or party that takes donations from developments. That’s rule no. 1.
The above video by a Berliner complains about Berlin’s influx of hipsters, addressing them directly in its conclusion:
“Please stop to face your neighbourhood… it matters if you try to live in Neukölln or whether you just live your imported party here. Just because the fucked up free market economy expects us, for example, to satisfy your wishes because you have the money and the power (at least afterwards) even though you refuse to believe in this fact now because you prefer to feel poor.. but that’s not the truth and you know that.” The video’s observations echo this critique of hipster culture.
The Guardian takes a different view, blaming Berlin’s skyrocketing living costs and rapid gentrification not on hipsters or artists, but on a world financial crisis that caused those with capital to invest in property rather than in the stock market. It’s all in the title: “Berlin’s housing bubble and the backlash against hipster tourists:
Skyrocketing housing costs in Berlin can’t be blamed on an influx of ‘foreigners’, but are in fact fuelled by the global financial crisis.”
I think both analyses contain some truth. They’re concurrent and not unrelated problems. On the hipster side it points to some problems with the whole creative class/creative city argument, but haranguing hipsters into better behaviour is no solution. The solution would be structural, a rights-based approach to housing policy. The Guardian writer concludes,”these are no natural forces. They can be kept in check with the right policies, like a cap on rents or laws against property speculation. Decent, affordable housing is a basic right, for locals as well as for international students, artists and layabouts.”
It is good to actually see housing actually being considered a human right in the press; the rights-based approach is mentioned far too seldom in the media let alone among policy-makers who have mostly been sucked into believing that private enterprise can fix the housing unaffordability problem. It can’t, and it won’t.
On the gentrification side, look at this critique of what’s happening to neighbourhoods in San Francisco and New York (High Line). Or hey, anything happening in Vancouver, a world capital of property-as-investment rather than property-as-shelter.
I would like to nominate the protest sign—all the protest signs of this year’s worldwide uprisings, in general—as the pre-eminent design object of 2011. Most newsworthy, most useful, most creative, and it gives “mass-produced” a new meaning.
Vancouver begins its own Occupy protest on October 15, in solidarity as well as in protest against the wealth divide here at home. The gap between rich and poor in Canada is at its historic widest, and it’s nowhere wider than in British Columbia where more than a decade of rightwing policies and cuts have produced, among other tragedies, the worst child poverty rate in the country, and by a wide margin. Accelerating corporate ownership of our political process creates problems here too. Even if Canada’s greater regulation of banking has saved us from some of the catastrophes facing the US, the rapidly widening income gap means we are heading for trouble.
Those who mock or dismiss Occupy Wall Street—if anyone is still doing that—will probably regret it later.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
Below, by an unknown phographer, a shot of a US veteran at the protest. (Please tell me if you know who shot this.) Sign should win a prize for best ever use of black electrical tape. “2nd time I’ve fought for my country – 1st time I’ve known my enemy.”
And from CNN‘s article “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it”:
Update: a new photo of the sign at top, which now seems to be going viral:
(All photos here are of New York. Photos of Vancouver to be appended later.)
The building at left is by Gehry. Shot is taken from the Highline promenade. I’m not normally a fan of Gehry but this grouping of buildings is quite attractive and when I saw its complementary surfaces I was struck by how seldom (never) Vancouver achieves this.
Thanks to property speculation in Vancouver, up to 60% of condos in the new downtown towers are unoccupied. This statistic is based on the assessment of realtors selling in the area. These condos are bought only for investment purposes, most often by foreign buyers but also by local real estate speculators. The condo towers in question are, as a result, increasingly built for pure, cynical get-rich-quick business motives rather than out of real housing needs and certainly not out of architectural ambition. Not surprisingly the towers reflect their crassly transactional origin in their design—as tall as possible, as many units as possible, and built to a spec design rather than designed by an architect. Hang the cost of a real architect; spend more on marketing than on architectural design: this is what is increasingly referred to in Vancouver as marketecture. These generic, personalityless, utterly interchangeable buildings are not built for living in as much as they are just tiny boxes for parking money in. And it shows.
In New York, on the other hand, you see evidence—in both older and newer buildings—of architectural and design quality. It’s as if people actually care about their city, and buildings seem constructed for a market that desires beauty and that plans to actually live in the building. But New York’s political economy is different than ours, of course. It has a long history of a diversified, locally-grounded economy. BC on the other hand has always been a pioneer, banana republic-style resource extraction economy. We build nothing from the raw resources, but rather just ship them out: logs, minerals, fish, lumber, pot. We never developed a tradition of making things. Instead we quickly built a flashy, architecturally-derivative paean to our quickly-begotten pirate loot. “By Sea, Land, and Air We Prosper”—that’s the motto of the City of Vancouver. A topic for another day is the connection between far-right economics and resource extraction.
Here is just a small sample of visually interesting buildings seen mostly in Lower Manhattan. Like them or not—and they’re not all perfect by any means—they evidence more care, design skill and creativity than the developer-designed mediocrity sprouting up all over Vancouver. Much of the current opposition to highrises has to do with the fact that these bland, cynical, tall-for-profit monstrosities are inimical to neighbourhoods. They bring a weird silent soullessness to every neighbourhood they’re plonked in. As architect Bing Thom pointed out recently, the housing stock downtown is utterly distorted by these economics—it’s designed for zero children and zero schools, it encourages only temporary inhabitation by people desperate to get into the real estate market, there’s no pleasurable pedestrian activity around them, and they’re simply unsustainable if what you want is a real city. And we’ll be stuck with this hulking mediocrity forever. Or until it’s underwater.
Certainly, comparing New York and Vancouver is comparing apples and oranges. New York sprang up before the invention of the car, it has an abundance of dense (and often not overly tall) housing, a history of rent control, excellent transit, and it enjoyed the kind of settlement pattern and diverse local industry that produces a workable layout and a natural form of density. That is New York’s pre-existing advantage. Vancouver was born of a succession of gold rushes (gold, fish, lumber, minerals… now real estate, drugs) and wears this political economy on its sleeve.
Many of these shots were taken from the Highline, the extremely successful and already beloved elevated park/promenade made from New York’s disused elevated train line. Which was reminiscent of the viaducts in Vancouver. On a warm September night the Highline was packed with people enjoying the view of the city amongst plantings of native grasses and plants.
To read about my book project on Vancouver's UN-Habitat Forum event of 1976 concerning just and sustainable urban settlements, click here. Few know that Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Mother Teresa, Paolo Soleri and Maggie & Pierre Trudeau, along with many thousands of others, came to Vancouver in 1976 to talk about better, safer, fairer and greener cities worldwide. In fact it was the founding conference of UN Habitat, an agency built around a foundational document called The Vancouver Declaration. My book is about what happened that year and is a snapshot not just of Vancouver but of how people around the world began to view cities and themselves differently in the wake of, among other things, the first oil crisis.
This blog is a long, somewhat messy photo essay on design. I started it because I felt that the historical context of design - design of objects, dwellings and cities - is too often ignored. History can be fugitive in the New World, with everything so decontextualized in the flow of commodities. Don't even get me started on tumblr and pinterest.
I am more interested in the modern/contemporary and the ancient than I am in what lies in between. I don't understand the appeal of cathedrals which I find garish and oppressive. I like the space-age, the futurist and the rustic, the utopian and the anti-utopian, the unstuffy and the unstaid, the frugal but sensual, the possibly-not-entirely-lost promise of the 1960s and 70s, the creative, the practical, the ingenious, the mixed, the unorthodox, and the way people actually live in real spaces. I am interested in bricolage, in making do, and in the way necessity mothers invention.
I like the sheer level of cultural borrowing evident in design, the actual impurity of design traditions long considered pure, and just generally the wild miscegenation of everything.
That's not to say that all mixing is a good idea. I'm definitely not talking about the faux-historification of our cities, the demolition of our actual past followed by its replacement with a faux nineteenth-century 'originality'. That's when you get elements of the past and the future, combining to make something not quite as good as either, as the Mighty Boosh would say.
Because design is never divorced from anything else, this long essay is also about urban planning, philosophy, art, political economy, architecture, sociology, geography, neurology, pyschology and anything else that pertains to design, which is everything.
The word "ouno" is a name in both Finnish and Japanese, two of my favourite nations for design. Apropos of nothing, the word also contains the symbols for both zero and one, and it's the same right side up as upside down. My dad was a mathematician in love with puzzles, so please excuse the nerd quotient and arithmophilia.
Speaking of which, this blog makes no attempt to avoid being nerdy or critical. There are plenty of nicey-nice boosterist design blogs out there and if that's what you're looking for, you will happily find many of those. I wouldn't blame you for going there. I just think that without critique and complaint, the design of dwellings and cities in North America won't get any better. And it needs to get a lot better than it is—less creatively impoverished, more democratic and a lot more pleasurable. We do after all spend almost all of our lives in buildings and towns and cities and altered landscapes, all of which have a overwhelming impact on our conscious lives, our unconscious lives, our health, intelligence, creativity and our social interactions. These things affect us every moment of our lives whether we're aware of them or not. And not only do we need more humane spaces in which to live, we need—above all—to ensure affordable housing for all. Without this, all our interest in decor is just privileged fiddling while Rome (or insert your city here) burns. Housing is a human right. Public policy and regulation are the only ways to insure people are housed and can afford to live in the cities where they work. The market and private industry are not going to get us there.
We all need to fight the worsening property speculation! Dear Canada and the USA and beyond, quit letting developers run—and ruin—this show.