Urban high-rises can be “vertical suburbs”

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin suggests again that some new urban high-rises are dull by comparing them to suburbs:

The most forward-looking of the bunch comes from the studio of Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao, who designed a model low-cost house for the first biennial. Her tower, done in cooperation with 14 other designers, would house apartments, a market, a workplace and other uses in a plug-in matrix enlivened by cantilevered parts. The design offers a persuasive alternative to the lifeless (and mindless) high-rises that are turning cities from Shanghai to Chicago into vertical suburbs.

Taking aim at the never-ending quest to erect the world’s tallest building, Bilbao asks a far more important question: “How do we create truly vertical communities?”

This comparison does two interesting things. First, it continues the suburban critique of blandness and conformity. While it was often applied to tract homes built on a mass scale, here it is applied to high-rises that are indistinguishable from others. Suburbs and their residents don’t take risks, nor do these new buildings.

Second, the architectural form of suburbs – single-family homes, strip malls and shopping malls, automobile-centric – may be a less important trait compared to its culture. The suggestion here is that a high-rise in the heart of the city can still be a suburb. Spatially, this makes little sense but if the suburbs are more about a particular community life and set of values – an emphasis on privacy, getting ahead, property values, family life – then it may not matter where this lifestyle is found.

It may be worth thinking more about this idea of a “vertical suburb.” Architects and others have spent decades thinking about how to create vertical communities but it often does not work as intended.

I disagree: Loop building boom a sign of “the re-urbanization of America”

An insightful analysis of the high-rise construction boom in Chicago’s Loop includes this claim about what all this new development means:

“It’s the re-urbanization of America,” said John Lahey, chairman of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in residential high-rises.

It’s also a shift in the urban map: The once-frayed edges of downtown, home to the poor and working-class, are now the glittering home of the affluent. Rental rates, while less expensive than on the coasts, still leave many priced out. City officials last month proposed a pilot program to generate affordable housing in gentrifying areas of the Near North and Near West sides as well as along Milwaukee Avenue. But changing the trajectory of the marketplace won’t be easy.

This is an interesting claim to make in Chicago. The “Super Loop” is indeed growing in population and tall buildings. But, the city as a whole is not doing so well. See the population loss. See the persistent problems – meaning, decades-long concerns – in numerous poor neighborhoods. See the slow population growth in the suburbs within the metropolitan region and also the emerging presence of urban issues (affordable housing, poverty, exclusion) in suburban areas.

A better description might be this: what is happening is the concentration of wealth in urban cores while outlying areas of cities and suburbs are suffering. The same process is happening in New York City, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, and other major cities.

Could you build a hurricane, tornado, flooding, blizzard resistant McMansion?

With the number of single-family homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, could you design a McMansion that could stand up to natural disasters? Here are a few factors that might affect whether this is possible:

  1. One of the advantages of McMansions for builders is that they are often constructed on a mass scale. Any changes to construction could slow down the process.
  2. Related to #1, an increase in the materials needed or a slow down in the process would likely lead to an increased price. Compared to true mansions, McMansions are aimed at a broader segment of the housing market.
  3. Different disasters likely require different approaches. If the problem is tornados, say in Tornado Alley, you are trying to protect against winds whereas if the home is constructed in a flood plain or on a coast, the home could be built on stilts or piers to allow floodwaters to pass underneath.
  4. Many McMansions are constructed in suburban areas. No matter what you do to each house, it could be very difficult to protect against everything. For example, flooding is less an issue of each home being poorly constructed but rather a problem connected to land development on a broader scale.

Many McMansion builders or owners would not have to worry too much about major disasters. But imagine that someone develops “the Resilient McMansion.” Could this be worth pursuing in certain areas?

Zillow defines McMansions but doesn’t really capture their essence

The recent Washington Post analysis on the return of the McMansions depends on Zillow’s definition of a McMansion:

(Since a “McMansion” is in the eye of the beholder, Zillow doesn’t have a targeted way of tracking them nationwide. For this article and the video above, they approximated the category by focusing on houses built after 1980 that were greater than 3,000 square feet but less than 5,000 square feet. They also looked for houses located on streets where the homes are similarly sized, on similarly sized lots, and built within six years of each other, to isolate cookie-cutter communities.)

This definition has several key aspects:

  1. A time period after 1980. The term McMansions arises in this era.
  2. A certain square footage. Once a home is too large, it is no longer a McMansion.
  3. The large homes are built as part of a development of similar homes.

This definition of a McMansion would seem to primarily capture suburban McMansions. Indeed, the analysis spends more time discussing general suburban trends than it does McMansions:

Many casual onlookers have forecast the death of the suburbs in recent years, especially as younger renters and buyers turn an eye to city centers. Skylar Olsen, a senior economist at Zillow, says that young people today have far more interest in living in urban environments. “That’s where jobs had been growing fastest over the course of this economic recovery over the past five years,” says Olsen…

Their decision is also supported by cheap energy costs, which make it affordable to commute. in mid-June, the nationwide average price of regular gasoline was $2.32 a gallon. Like the McMansion and the pickup in the housing market, it’s another source of deja vu. After remaining elevated for years, oil prices are now roughly the same as they were June 2000, when adjusted for inflation.

This definition leads to two major problems with defining what homes are McMansions:

  1. Not all suburban houses are McMansions. It may be easy to conflate the two – the majority of McMansions are likely located in the suburbs – but they are not the same.
  2. The Zillow data provides little insight into the architecture of the home. A home of that time period and square footage in a cookie-cutter neighborhood is not necessarily garish or poorly proportioned. Such homes might be more likely to be McMansions but it is not a guarantee.

Zillow may be limited in the architectural data they can access. For example, they may be able to know how large the garages are on these homes but it doesn’t really know how exactly these garages are presented. Yet, painting McMansions with a broad brush may not be very accurate and fall into the trap of painting most of suburbia as filled with McMansions.

Thoughts on “The rise of the McModern” McMansion

Kate Wagner of McMansionHell fame analyzes a subset of McMansions dubbed McModerns:

What makes the McModern a fascinating case study in residential architectural history is its two separate lineages: its foundation as a McMansion, and its origins within the greater historical context of popular modernism—that is, modernism for everyday families…

In the grand taxonomy of residential architecture, the McModern is a genus within the McMansion family. This is not to say that the “modern” part isn’t as important as the “Mc,” because the McModern as we know it derives from a source not often touched upon: the everyday modern houses not designed by famous architects, but by builders, or from pattern books…

The socioeconomic and technological development of the 21st-century McModern is strongly tied to the relentless pursuit of minimalism, beginning with industrial design: At the turn of the millennium, we entered the iPod age. Even more importantly, we fully embraced the internet age, and then subsequently the mobile age. These shifts triggered the beginning of the McModern….

Are old modernist houses definitively better than McModerns? Perhaps not—all styles have their duds, after all. However, it is the indulgent, inefficient, and architecturally botched nature of the McMansion that lies beneath the sleek surface of the McModern. In the eyes of McMansion builders, modern architecture is perceived by potential buyers as the culturally significant, high-brow form of architecture, revered by the educated and glossy magazines. To see something only for its superficial attributes or financial potential and execute it carelessly is perhaps the most “Mc” thing anyone can do.

Borrowing from earlier styles of architecture was intended to give McMansions a sense of permanence and power, even if they were mass produced starting in the 1980s. But, what is the aesthetic appeal of modernist architecture? Wagner suggests it is minimalism and a certain kind of cultural cachet but this seems tricky with how modernist architecture has often been treated in the United States. Modernist architecture may be good for skyscrapers but is more suspect for homes where many residents want an appeal to family and traditional neighborhoods (even though modernism is now roughly a century old). Additionally, it is less clear how minimalism works when the house is over 3,000 square feet – not exactly a minimalist amount of space.

I have argued previously that Americans, if given a choice, would prefer McMansions over modernist homes. See earlier posts here and here. Wagner hints at these dynamics in her piece as well; the modernist McMansions may primarily appeal to those who (1) are aware of what high-brow architecture and care to associate with it; (2) those who are choosing to locate in rapidly hip gentrifying neighborhoods; and (3) those with a tech-savvy lifestyle.

Now, we just need some data to back this all up and demonstrate some patterns.

Argument: Apple’s new HQ is anti-city

Build a massive new headquarters in the suburbs surrounded by artificial berms and you may just open yourself to charges that you are anti-city:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood…

Except when you have a statement building like the Spaceship, the circuit can’t complete. If Apple ever goes out of business, what would happen to the building? The same thing that happened to Union Carbide’s. That’s why nobody builds these things anymore. Successful buildings engage with their surroundings—and to be clear, Apple isn’t in some suburban arcadia. It’s in a real live city, across the street from houses and retail, near two freeway onramps….

In the early days of the project, reports suggest Apple wasn’t willing to participate in “community benefits,” financial or otherwise, and Cupertino’s city council didn’t seem too willing to push one of the city’s biggest employers and taxpayers. The mayor at the time tried to propose higher taxes on the company, but the city council didn’t support the move.

Over time, though, Apple committed to giving the city some money to help with traffic and parking. “We had to bring them into our world. They don’t do urban design. They don’t do planning. We needed to talk to each other,” Shrivastava says…

So what could Apple have built? Something taller, with mixed-use development around it? Cupertino would never have allowed it. But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.

This is an interesting juxtaposition to the steady stream of stories in recent years about how tech companies and other companies hip to the changing times are moving back to cities. Why would Apple construct such a structure and do so in the suburbs? I wonder if it has to do with control and secrecy. That may refer to the technology present – a building like this keeps it away from the public – but could also refer to providing employees with few reasons to go elsewhere. Facebook tried to do something like this by providing a Main Street all sorts of amenities so employees would want to stay (or wouldn’t have to leave). If you have your technology and employees wrapped up in one massive (and impressive) structure, you can exert a level of control few companies could dream of.

I also wonder if only a few companies could get away with this today. Apple is so prestigious and wealthy that it can do lots of things differently than others – such as trying to move back to the city to attract and retain younger workers – without much loss.

Finally, the article includes a quote calling structures like these “white elephants.” Imagine in ten years that Apple decides to move to a newly constructed skyscraper/megatructure in San Francisco. How could a suburban community deal with such a building? Many suburbs have a hard enough time with a vacant grocery store building, let alone a idiosyncratic large structure like this.

An award-winning redesigned McMansion entry inspired by baskets

Can you redeem a McMansion with redesigned spaces? Here is one such example from Juneau:

A Juneau McMansion’s redesigned entryway was recently celebrated at the 17th Annual Northwest Design Awards in Seattle. Juneau’s Bauer/Clifton Interiors took first place for most innovative design for their work. The entire home’s remodel was inspired by something you might not expect…

But the biggest influence for the entryway might surprise you.

“Looking at the bottom of a woven basket,” said Bauer. “It was something that the owner collected and was very fond of and we had one of them that we took as an inspirational piece that we had laying here on our island in our studio. That was the piece that we turned over and looked at, and it was when the light went off and went, ‘OK, let’s try doing this — let’s try creating a woven wood floor,’” said Bauer.

With farmhouse chic in mind, the designers found reclaimed 150-year-old American chestnut wood flooring from an old farm in West Virginia. The reuse factor is something the designers like, too.

We might imagine an odd scenario: those McMansions that critics say are so garish on the outside, such an ugly mishmash of styles, may just have beautifully designed interiors. Much of the architectural critique of McMansions emphasizes the outside and this makes some sense; they are easier to view and the exteriors are part of how the home presents itself to the world and thus influences social interactions. On the other hand, the prime private space that the McMansion has – thousands of square feet – is hidden from public view and is primarily meant for the residents. Granted, many McMansions may have problems on both the outside and inside but it is much harder to summarize their interiors.

Put differently, can McMansions be redeemed by designing them better from the inside out?