Claim: “The physical environment feels depressingly finished”

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic considers innovation and Silicon Valley, he includes this paragraph regarding innovation in the physical and urban realm:

And if you look up from your smartphone, progress becomes harder to see. The physical world of the city—the glow of electric-powered lights, the rumble of automobiles, the roar of airplanes overhead and subways below—is a product of late-19th-century and early-20th-century invention. The physical environment feels depressingly finished. The bulk of innovation has been shunted into the invisible realm of bytes and code.

There are several pieces that can be pulled out of this an examined:

1. Has innovation in cities and urban areas slowed? Many of the major changes may have already happened – think the modern skyscraper, the car and all the roads to go with them – but I’m guessing there are some lesser-known changes in the last few decades that have made a major difference. (For better or worst, one would be the global shift toward and innovations in capitalism, neoliberalism, and the finance industry that has had large effects on numerous cities and neighborhoods.)

2. If “the physical environment feels depressingly finished,” does this mean a change in aesthetics or style could alter this? Science-fiction films and shows tend to depict cities as white, gleaming, and move curved than they are today. Think Her which merges city life and technological change. Or, find images of cities from researchers, activists, and architects who imagine much greener cities full of plants and life rather than hard surfaces and cars. Perhaps the problem is not innovation as it is described in this article; one issue is that the look of big cities has not changed much in the fifty years or so (even as some individual buildings or projects might stand out).

3. If the look and feel of cities has not changed as much recently, could “the invisible realm of bytes and code” bring significant changes to the physical environment in the next few decades? In contrast to #2, perhaps future innovation in spaces will be less about collective experiences and aesthetics and more about changed private experiences. Imagine Virtual Reality in cities that allows pedestrians to see or overlay different information over their immediate surroundings. Or, easier access to Big Data in urban settings that will help individuals/consumers make choices.

Turning a 55 year old suburban split-level into a LEED platinum home

A couple in Arlington Heights is committed to a green home for the upcoming decades of its lifespan:

Amy Myers and Mike Baker could have torn down their 1964 split-level home in Arlington Heights and replaced it with a McMansion…

It will be the first LEED Platinum home renovation in Arlington Heights. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is governed by the U.S. Green Building Council and serves as the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

The house has been designed with such features as net zero energy consumption, smart stormwater management and integrated rainwater storage. Plans include wrapping it in a tight thermal envelope and utilizing materials like airtight drywall to maximize the home’s energy efficiency…

“We’re really trying to do everything we can to make his a model of how you can recycle a 1960s home into something for the future,” Kollman said.

A Google Street View image of the home in question:

ArlingtonHeightsHome

This is a serious commitment to a fairly nondescript suburban single-family home. I would guess few suburbanites would make such an investment. At the same time, this does hint at possibilities for the many postwar suburban homes. Rather than being torn down for better homes, there might be relatively cost-effective ways to such homes operating as improved dwellings. (And this could apply to ranch homes as well as McMansions which are maligned early in this story.)

Does the green retrofitting of such homes help wipe out the more destructive aspects of suburban sprawl? Even if this house achieves LEED Platinum status, it is in a setting revolving around the car. The owners might have an electric or hybrid car – but driving is still required and making those vehicles is not all good for the environment. Would the reduced heating and energy costs be more efficient than living in a multifamily building? Do landscaping changes offset the changes subdivisions made to the landscape there beforehand?

I would be interested to see the possibilities of more LEED suburban homes, particularly if the costs are reasonable enough for homeowners to consider this as opposed to moving or tearing down the home. In the end, this would require more homeowners to think about keeping a home for a much longer scale and investing money in a way that might not lead to a huge return in their property values.

Suburban dream: have a McMansion 12 miles from Times Square

A profile of Hasbrouch Heights, New Jersey in the New York Times highlights the variety of housing styles available in close proximity to Manhattan:

A mile-and-a-half square atop a hill, Hasbrouck Heights is hardly the boondocks. Times Square is 12 miles east, and the Manhattan skyline is visible from some streets. On the northern end, Interstate 80 swipes past and Route 46 cuts through. Route 17, with office buildings, hotels and chain restaurants, runs down the town’s eastern edge, and Teterboro Airport is just on the other side.

Driving through Hasbrouck Heights on Route 17 offers little inkling of the residential community up the hill or beyond the cliff to the west. Bordered primarily by Hackensack and the boroughs of Lodi, Wood-Ridge and Teterboro, Hasbrouck Heights has an eclectic housing stock of Capes, Victorians, ranches, split-levels, boxy contemporaries, Tudors, McMansions and colonials of all stripes, many on 50-foot-wide lots. The architectural variety, spanning the late 1800s to the current decade, is evident on nearly every block.

“With the new construction, builders have done a good job adding style and character,” said Susan LeConte, the president and chief executive of LeConte Realty, in Hasbrouck Heights. “The homes are not cookie-cutter.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This kind of real estate profile, a staple in many newspapers, tend to be very positive about each community or neighborhood highlighted. This profile is no exception: it has the feeling of a small town (bikes can stay unlocked!), there is a little noise from a nearby airport but not too much, and residents can commute to New York City. If this is not an advertisement for the American Dream – single-family home in a quiet suburb not too far from the big city – then I do not know what is. (Thinking more about these profiles: it would be funny to follow them with the opposite perspective of each community.)
  2. The paragraph on different housing architecture is interesting in two ways. How would a suburban community end up with an “eclectic housing stock”? Perhaps development took place in fits and starts. Perhaps the community has a mix of housing needs (with McMansions sitting on the more expensive end). Perhaps the community is more open to different kinds of development.
  3. The second interesting part of the housing paragraph is that the mix of architectural styles only hints at two more modern styles: “boxy contemporaries” and McMansions. Neither descriptions are endearing. Boxy and sleek homes are not preferred by many. McMansions are often viewed as taking up too much space and having poor design. Does this hint that home styles have hit a dead end in recent decades? Would more buyers prefer an older, more established style that they can then update to fit their own needs?
  4. For all the density and glamour of Manhattan, there are plenty of McMansions in the New York City region (including famously in New Jersey and elsewhere).

Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

At least two McMansions on the list of “26 most Iconic TV Interiors”

Architectural Digest has a list of the “26 most Iconic TV Interiors” and it includes at least two McMansions:

The Sopranos memorialized early-2000s New Jersey in all its gritty glory. Perhaps most memorable among fans was the Soprano family kitchen, with its light wood palette, where Tony was often seen in his robe, rummaging for cold cuts. But the show’s production designer Bob Shaw has said he found the office of Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi the most interesting, because it was round. For a mobster confronting his own mind, there was nowhere to hide…

The rich and beautiful but down-to-earth Cohen family was the family every O.C. fan wished would adopt them—but only Ryan was so lucky! The Italianate McMansion in Newport Beach, California, was actually built on a soundstage—so, that breathtaking ocean view from Ryan’s poolhouse? That was a photo backdrop made by production designer Thomas Fichter, who was also responsible for all the “weather” you ever saw on the show.

I have a lot to say about the Soprano McMansions here.

The home from The O.C. has some similarities to the Soprano’s McMansion: it is in the suburbs and was built (and aired) in the same time period. Yet, the inhabitants of Orange County on the show faced more conventional suburban problems – teenagers stuck in a world of largely successful adults with big houses – compared to the twist of a gangster family living in a well-kept New Jersey McMansion.

Two other thoughts on this list:

-There are at least a few outright  mansions on here, including the impressive setting for Downtown Abbey.

-The brief descriptions do not provide that many insights as the list contains mostly very popular shows. Did the interesting setting help make the shows popular or did the settings become interesting because the shows took off? The list does not really have any failed shows though I imagine some short-lived television shows had some very interesting interiors.

Emily Post, pretense, and McMansions

A look at Emily Post’s etiquette connects her advice then and McMansions today:

Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”

Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

These two passages cited above suggest that those with wealth and resources should not flaunt their advantages by either acting like they know everything or having possessions that indicate status but not refinement. Hence, a McMansion might be an issue because the owner is purchasing a relatively expensive and large house and making a statement with its architecture and design. Instead of a more understated or traditional looking or older wealthy home, the McMansion is often said to be a plea for attention by those with new money to burn.

At the same time, this hints at some broader issues Americans have with wealth and dwellings. Is it more acceptable to have a more subtle but truly grand big home as opposed to garish McMansion? Both dwellings might contribute to inequality. Both could discourage social interaction. Both are larger than the average home and arguably waste a lot of space. Both show that the homeowners have money.

In American society, there have long been certain ways wealthy people should try to downplay their wealth. Because has more democratic and meritocratic ideals than some places, having certain possessions – the ultimate or unusual luxury goods – are truly markers of having a lot more than others. McMansions are not these luxury goods; they are too common and are within the reach of relatively more Americans. The big mansions of Hollywood, in the wealthiest suburbs and urban neighborhoods, and home to the 1% are the ultimate mansions and indicators of wealth.

Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized”

Brutalist architecture may have few admirers but this does not stop people from suggesting the style is worth examining or saving. Here is a recent headline from Curbed Chicago: “13 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know; Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized.” And this is the argument made about why these buildings are worth looking at:

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

If this argument is successful, then it is a short step toward a similar argument for all kinds of architectural styles and buildings. In particular, the same case could be made for McMansions. Even though many critiqued such homes, what buildings better capture the consumeristic exuberance and grandiosity of the 1990s and 2000s? What buildings better illustrate the sprawling of America and a dedication to private single-family homes that flaunt the status of the homeowners? Why not preserve at least a few McMansions for future generations to remember and learn from?

Somehow, I suspect the calls for preserving McMansions will be more muted or absent. Brutalism seems to attract the attention of enough elite or leading proponents that some of its most interesting buildings will survive. Few leading architects, critics, or designers will stand up for McMansions. Still, I would suspect enough of them will last 50+ years and the legions of McMansion buyers and builders may just come together to make sure some survive much longer.