Posts Tagged ‘speculation’

Interior design and architecture in a world gentrifying at a surreal pace

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

hong kong micro apartments

New York condo penthouse

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.

Financial Times:  Priced Out of Paris: Our great, global cities are turning into vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself
Financial Times:  The Future of the American City
City Limits:  Embrace the Worldwide Movement Against Gentrification
CBC:  World’s Wealthy Richer Than Ever

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.

Photo at top via ABC News.

small-space-decorating

Everybody works but the vacant lot

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Condo artwork by artist Alex Grünenfelder
Everybody works but the vacant lot, Henry George as quoted by Fay Lewis

This is a parody artwork at Vancouver’s 221A Artist-Run Centre, parodying the “Micro Loft” building being erected next door to it in the current lightning-fast condo land rush taking place in Chinatown.

From their website:

221A is pleased to present Cube Living (Phase 2), a 4-week artist-in-residence with artist and designer Alex Grünenfelder, running from January 23 to February 25, 2013. Grünenfelder will examine how real estate developments operate as containers that capture living space as urban spatial commodities through the packaging of bodies, objects, lifestyles, identities, capital and politics.
Grünenfelder will begin a limited release of micro-properties measuring 1 cubic foot. This innovative product addresses the stagnation and endemic unaffordability of Vancouver’s real estate market. In developing a spatial commodity that can be purchased in very small units, Cube Living is able to offer affordable properties at prices under $50! Micro-properties are an accessible solution to the inflated real estate market crisis that threatens to push Vancouver’s economy into decline.

Many Vancouver residents find it difficult or impossible to enter the market. Despite government urban densification policies that have brought 10,000 new condo units to the city each year, [1] Vancouver remains the second least-affordable city in the world. [2]

Vancouver has experienced explosive real estate development since 1986. In the 2000s, then-mayor Sam Sullivan’s Ecodensity program initiated radical urban densification with the aim of promoting housing affordability and environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods. Pundits declared that flooding the market with new condos would result in more affordable—or at least stable—prices, so that new buyers could purchase small units and eventually trade up into a larger living space. Buildings got taller and condos got smaller, but prices have kept rising. Development and construction hasn’t been able to meet the goal of affordability and now the city is faced with a dire situation.

“The current property market is almost saturated. Sales are in decline because people can’t afford to lower their asking prices. We need to expand into new markets, and the only way to produce a lower tier of affordable entry-level properties is to create highly liquid, easily tradeable micro-spaces. This is the only way to address the affordability crisis within our market-driven real-estate economy.”

[1]RBC. “Vancouver’s housing market: moderation in store but vulnerable to a harsher outcome.” April 2012. Page 6. http://www.rbc.com/economics/market/pdf/vancouverhouse.pdf

[2]Demographia. “9th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survery: 2013”. Page 2. http://www.demographia.com/dhi.pdf

Ha.

221A website, twitter, Facebook event.

Art and cooperatives in the economy

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Elvy del Bianco on art and cooperatives

Photo by Dan Toulgoet , Vancouver Courier - Elvy Del Bianco presents rare films shot in Vancouver between 1964 and 1988 at the Waldorf Hotel in 2011.

This is one of the more interesting short talks I’ve listened to, and I’m posting it here in the hope that it gets wider distribution. It was presented by Elvy Del Bianco, a researcher with major BC credit union VanCity, itself a cooperative. Del Bianco’s position at VanCity is quite unique; his job is to research the relationship between arts and innovation and promote a cooperative business model in an attempt to foster social capital locally. What is social capital? Well, the short answer is that it’s the various benefits of cooperation. Del Bianco explains using the model of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, one of the most profitable in the EU thanks to its “lego economics” in which smaller businesses (balsamic vinegar, parmesan, even Ferrari) combine resources to leverage economic power. Culture both plays a role in and benefits from this model. It is also interesting to note that the region is not just wealthy but is one of the most democratic anywhere, with a small income gap in what is historically a left-wing Italian heartland with a long history of employee-owned companies.

Below is Del Bianco’s 6-minute talk at Vancouver’s Pecha Kucha, and it’s well worth watching no matter where you live. The audio is a little challenging at points, and as I found out when I spoke at Pecha Kucha, you have to speak quickly if you want to fit complex ideas into a 6 minute spiel. But it’s an extremely interesting talk. His comments the challenges facing arts and culture in Vancouver are interesting; he talks about condo development speculation driving unaffordability, as well as the massive, unique-in-Canada massive cuts to cultural investment on the part of BC’s provincial government.

Bianco is himself an artist, having worked many years as an actor after training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He grew up in East Vancouver.

The Del Mar Inn, Vancouver, turns 100 this week. Join us for a birthday party!

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Please join the Or Gallery, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation and the Riste Family in saying Happy 100th Birthday to the Del Mar Inn! The Vancouver Heritage Foundation will be awarding a Places That Matter heritage plaque to the building on the occasion of its birthday. The ceremony and reception are this Thursday, August 2, 7 pm at the Or Gallery on the building’s main floor. 555 Hamilton Street. Refreshments.

It is unarguable that the Del Mar Inn has one of the most fascinating building histories in Vancouver. I have detailed it here. In short, for many years the building’s owner George Riste resisted extreme and creative pressure from BC Hydro to sell the building so that they could develop the whole block. In the end they were forced to develop the block around the Inn, but they have not given up. The more stubborn the Ristes become, the more bizarre the Crown Corporation’s behaviour. George’s family, in particular his son Mike Riste, continue the tradition. For decades they have consistently provided clean, affordable housing to low income Vancouverites, and not just in the Del Mar Inn but in other buildings around the city as well. And they’ve done it in the most dogged but quiet, limelight-avoiding manner. Meanwhile they have also saved one of the last old residential hotels in the downtown core.

See a description of the event on the Vancouver Heritage Foundation site and this blurb for more information about the building.

We’ll be hosting a reception. If you’re interested in Vancouver’s heritage and the amazing, iconoclastic Riste family, please come and help celebrate.

Note: The building was actually opened on August 1, 1912, so our party is technically a day late.

Drawing above by Won Kang.