Who is going to pay for those architect-designed plans for the suburbs?

In reviewing the “Foreclosed” exhibit at MoMA, Felix Salmon raises an interesting question: who is going to pay for these projects to be built?

Anybody who visits the exhibit can see that nothing remotely along the lines of the buildings being proposed is ever going to be realized — Orange, New Jersey, for instance, is not going to replace its roads with long strips of narrow housing. But what’s less obvious is the way in which all of these projects are also a huge financial stretch. They were charged with coming up with innovative forms of home finance, but all those innovative solutions tend to boil down to the same basic idea: get the local municipal government to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars and then spend that money on a massive housing development which will, somehow, generate the income needed to service the debt.

Such ideas have a tendency to work much better in theory than they do in practice; they’re fragile things, at risk from dozens of different directions at the same time, and if I were a local bank, I’d stay well away from funding them. And I certainly would never advise small and unsophisticated suburbs like these ones to get into bed with the sharks peddling municipal bonds and associated interest-rate derivatives.

Michael Bell, in the video above, makes the very good point that architecture and architects are largely absent from the suburbs. But I guess that I was really looking for something much lower-cost than the mega projects that the teams in the MoMA show came up with. Certainly lower in up-front cost, anyway. The foreclosure crisis was caused by people borrowing enormous sums of money and then finding themselves unable to pay it back. The last thing we want to do is risk repeating that all over again.

The reality is that few houses in the United States are designed by architects; I remember seeing a statistic a few years ago that suggested it was roughly 5-10%. There are plenty of other people who think they can design them, such as builders or engineers or Menards. A couple of issues could be present here. Adding an architect to the homebuilding process includes another person that needs to be paid. If you are a builder who is hoping to  Some designs might be considered “too modern” for many suburban neighborhoods that tend to celebrate bland or known styles. This is the  reason you can get stucco houses across the country – people know these but are more skeptical of modernist homes.

The funding is another matter. Salmon suggests that few municipalities should enter into such deals in good or bad economic times. However, where else could people get money to build innovative projects? If government isn’t going to front the money, would private lenders (either well-off banks or wealthy individuals or foundations who want to get into real estate or put their stamp on the physical landscape. Without funding, how much more likely are we to get “normal” or “tried and true” projects and how then do we push things forward in architecture or urban design?

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