Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing

Building off yesterday’s post about the small percent of American buildings that are designed, I was reminded of the book Robert Brenneman and I released in 2020 about religious buildings. Here are several connections between our work and arguments about designing the American built environment:

  1. Different religious traditions and groups place a different level of emphasis on the importance of design and details for religious buildings. A number of Protestant congregations downplay the need for a designed building or the importance of a building. Take the megachurch with its theater/performance space sanctuary or the gym that could be home to services, meals, and basketball games. Yet, we found that congregations can put a lot of effort and energy into the process of constructing and maintaining their building. A building matters for religious groups and it has the potential to shape both the experience of the transcendent and the community for those who use and visit the building.
  2. In Chapter 5, Robert talked with three architects who work with different religious groups to realize their dreams for buildings. These architects have ideas about what religious buildings could or should look like and they interact with congregations to help produce what the congregation and the architect agree on.
  3. Congregations also have the ability to take the space they can access – determined by resources, networks, etc. – and add function and/or their own aesthetics. In Chapter 6, we have multiple case studies of congregations that took existing buildings and molded them to their purposes. Our cases included converting a former military barracks, a church building constructed by another congregation, a factory, and a high school.
  4. Enhancing and adapting buildings is an ongoing process for both religious buildings and congregations. Over time, a religious buildings could be home to multiple traditions and uses. A congregation may find that its needs evolve or they have different resources. Maintaining a beneficial built environment requires effort beyond the initial design.

Most of the American built environment is not designed

Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues in Welcome to Your World that despite what we know about the importance of the built environment, few American environments are designed:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Most of what we see from our windows or in our surroundings has been constructed, but it was not really designed in any but a rudimentary sense of the word. In the United States, 85 percent of new construction – whether it is a new bridge, an urban park, a housing development, or a school addition – is realized at the hands of construction firms collaborating with real estate developers or other private clients. Many of these buildings bypass designers (a catchall term for professionals involved in designing the built environment, including architects, landscape architects, interior architects, urban designers, city planners, civil engineers, and other sorts of civil servants) completely, or employ them only cursorily, to review and stamp their approval on drawings… (xxi)

Why is this the case?

In the United States and in most other parts of the world today, many people believe that engaging a highly trained design professional is an unnecessary expense. True, wealthy individuals and corporations with plenty of assets do buy design to add beauty or prestige, and public and private institutions aspiring to serve as cultural stewards hire trained, informed professionals for complex structures such as skyscrapers. But this is not the norm.

The reason aside from financial considerations is that most projects in the built environment are commissioned on the basis of and judged by two complementary standards. Safety first: building codes and legislation and inspectors enforce standards that ensure that our bridges and buildings and parks and cityscapes will withstand gravity and wind, will weather the vicissitudes of climate and the ravages of time, and that their smaller features, such as electrical systems and stairways ,will not shock or trip people up. Function next: people expect projects to serve an institution’s or private individual’s daily needs both effectively and efficiently, which often means with as little expenditure of resources – space, time, money – as possible. (xxii)

In other words, design and beauty and their effects on people and their interactions are not considered as much as they should be. An emphasis on safety, initial cost, and function shortchanges what the built environment could offer in the long run. Thus, Americans often get uninspiring buildings and places.

This reminds me of three similar arguments:

  1. James Howard Kunstler makes a similar argument about the American suburbs. Why would people care about such places that offer so little in terms of the built environment?
  2. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that public buildings and spaces could offer much to enhance community life if they were built with design and people in mind. For example, schools and libraries could be true gathering places that bring people together.
  3. Architect Sarah Susanka argues Americans do not need bigger homes but rather homes that are designed for them and that will enhance their life. Instead, the homes that Americans get – not designed by architects – are lifeless boxes.

Given the social forces at work leading to this, it would take substantial effort to have Americans value and employ better built environments.

A McMansion with a real McDonald’s/fast food theme inside?

A home in suburban New York has an interior devoted to McDonald’s and fast food:

There is a New York house for sale that was decorated as a love affair with fast food and it’s crazy. The kitchen looks like a modern McDonald’s complete with a kids section with old playland furniture. There are also tons of old fast food memorabilia like Ronald McDonald statues and stained glass that was used in McDonald’s restaurants in the 70s.

The fast-food theme doesn’t just start and end with McDonald’s. It includes Burger King, Wendys, and White Castle too…

This is the actual kitchen in this house. Does that not look like a modern McDonalds? Just about the only things missing are cash registers and a drive-thru window…

I swear I didn’t just run down to my local McDonalds and snap a picture of their bathroom. I mean really, how creepy would that be? This one of the bathrooms off the kitchen and it looks just like one you’d find in a typical fast food joint.

According to Zillow, the home is over 3,400 square feet and has seven bedrooms:

The term McMansion is linked to McDonald’s in that the “Mc-” prefix implies something mass produced with relatively poor quality. Does this home fit? The home is big, roughly 1,000 more square feet than the average new home. The exterior is interesting: the proportions are off as the top windows which look like they are symmetrical do not line up with the bottom features where the entryway (completely with columned portico) and garage are offset. The gables over the top windows are unncessary though the siding looks consistent.

Is the house a bit odd looking? Yes. Is the McDonald’s and fast food interior unique? Yes. But, I wonder if something else is going on here that does not quite line up with the McMansion moniker. When I first saw the home and location, I wondered if this was a postwar house. Indeed, the Zillow listing says the home was constructed in 1947. My guess is that this home had at least one addition or major change since its initial construction and these add-ons contributed to the odd facade. When people use the term McMansion, they tend to refer to a home built since the 1980s that was constructed with the poor features and quality. This home is not that. When looking on Google Street View, many of the nearby homes look to be older homes as well.

Perhaps this home is more like a McMansion because the interior specifically references fast food. Is it ironic? Nostalgic? Does all of it come the property? Put a Golden Arches in front of the house and this might be accurately termed a McDonald’s House, not a McMansion.

Reconsidering the need for faculty offices after COVID-19

With more faculty and college instructors working from off-campus during COVID-19, does this mean faculty offices can be done away with in the future?

Many campus planners have long advocated for fewer traditional, individual, closed-door offices, and more shared workspaces for faculty and staff members, like what many private companies have. The idea is that open, common work rooms will foster collaboration and make instructors more visible and less intimidating to students. A few phone rooms, meeting rooms, and lockers could serve for whenever somebody needed quiet, privacy, and somewhere to store belongings.

Having fewer private offices could also save on heating and electricity costs. On average, 19 percent of campuses’ indoor square footage is dedicated to offices, according to a 2007 survey (the latest available) of 276 institutions that are members of the Society for College and University Planning. (Only housing, at 20 percent, commands a larger area.) Using that much space more efficiently could make a big difference to a college’s bottom line.

Especially if faculty and staff members will continue to work from home more often, leaving their desks unoccupied some days of the week, colleges could save by having people who come in on different days share the same private office. As Paul Dale, president of Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz. put it, it’s a way of fitting “30 pounds of potatoes in a 20-pound bag.”

Faculty members accustomed to their own offices can be loath to give them up, however. Private faculty-office space is a marker of accomplishment and prestige, said Luanne Greene, president of Ayers Saint Gross. Sometimes it’s even written into tenure contracts. But with the pandemic-driven increase in working from home, Greene and her team have seen a shift.

These arguments mirror those from corporate world where the open office emerged in recent decades: efficiencies in how space is used plus possibilities for collaboration and quick interactions. Yet, open offices are not embraced by all workers.

From my own studies of spaces plus my experiences as a faculty member, here are at least a few reasons why offices are valuable:

  1. A sense of space that is yours. College classrooms are often impersonal, spaces meant to be used by instructors from a variety of disciplines. They contain the tools necessary for teaching and learning – projectors, computers, whiteboards, desks or tables plus seating, etc. – but they often have little character. In contrast, offices are spaces where instructors can customize their surroundings to fit their personality and their needs for work (conversations, study, writing, etc.).
  2. A permanent place to store books and other materials. An open work space has little room for this and the assumption may be that we are living in a paperless world. This is not true for many scholars.
  3. A place of solitude that is conducive to the kind of creativity and study that scholars need to do. Putting on headphones in a busy area or working from home may not be able to approximate the way that an office can provide the solitary setting that is often needed.

Of course, not all college instructors might see this the same way. But, as the article notes, faculty would have concerns. And the solution presented at the end of this section – smaller individual offices with more space that could shared by all – is an intriguing compromise for settings and instructors where that collaborative space would be valued.

Who exactly designs “zany McMansions”?

Are architects capable of designing McMansions?

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Pro tip: One of the more fun ways to hunt for real estate is to go to your favorite site and search the keyword “architect.” You’ll end up with a lot of zany McMansions, but among the chaff are some well-pedigreed gems.

While this sounds like an interesting exercise, it brings up an important question. Who exactly is designing the McMansions that critics revile?

One of the biggest critiques of McMansions is that they are poorly designed and their architectural quality is suspect. This might come in the form of odd proportions or a mish-mash of styles or a blending of features. Instead of a pleasing aesthetic, the McMansion presents a mass produced version of something that tries to nod to established homes but only succeeds in aping such residences.

Typically left unsaid in these critiques is who exactly put together these unpleasing designs. Often the designs for homes come from builders or developers. What they have in mind when designing a home may not be the same as architects.

I would guess that architects would prefer that more single-family homes are designed by architects. Not only would this supply more work, it would have likely lead to more architecturally coherent homes. The emphasis might be less on providing space, an impressive front, and the most bang-for-your-buck, and instead focus on beauty plus functionality. Of course, some homes could l look great in the eyes of some and not be very desirable (see some modernist structures).

Perhaps more of the focus should come back to builders and developers: what could they do to provide the features American buyers want while also designing more architecturally pleasing homes? The same McMansions might not be so bad for many if they had a better design or fit the neighborhood better. Some would still object to the size of the home – is it really necessary to have 3,000-10,000 square feet? – but at least it would not be in danger of easy attacks. The architectural coherence could affect the price point but might also help the long-term reputation of the neighborhood and builder.

What the architecture of City Hall communicates

A new book titled City Hall looks at the design of city hall across American communities:

“Our democratic heritage goes back to ancient Greece, and so it stands to reason that when America was born, so to speak, in the late 18th century, municipal buildings referred to the Greco-Roman architecture, with the pillars and pediments and cornices,” he says. But as the country matured, different forms of architecture began to emerge. “Then it becomes, ‘Do we still embrace the neoclassical style architecture, or do we start embracing our own time?’” he adds. (That argument more recently played out at the federal level, when former President Donald Trump tried to make neoclassical architecture the default style for all national buildings in his controversial “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” effort.)…

In many of these examples, governments used their city halls to express civic pride, and to be “at the forefront of progressive building technologies and changing architectural styles,” architectural historian Thomas Mellins writes at the beginning of Drooker’s book…

Regardless of the architecture, there is a recognition among mayors and architects that municipal buildings are ultimately places for the people, and that the designs need to convey a message of approachability. In San Jose’s new city hall, which opened in 2005, Richard Meier’s postmodern design made extensive use of glass, making a statement about government transparency as well as energy efficiency. The building’s unusual three-part structure emphasized that theme: There’s the rotunda and the city council chamber, and in between them at the heart of the complex is an open plaza that then-mayor Ron Gonzales and his administration wanted toserve as the “people’s living room.”

Public or civic buildings present a unique opportunity to highlight particular values and create public space to be used and enjoyed. This can be done in a variety of architectural styles or forms, affected by trends in architecture, regional differences, the size of the community, the resources available, and more.

This reminds me of James Howard Kunstler’s critique of Boston’s City Hall, a building designed by noted architect I. M. Pei. Kunstler argues that the space is not inviting and not a worthy public space. The Brutalist architecture does not necessarily invoke warm fuzzies about local government.

In contrast, many suburban communities opt for modest city halls in either more traditional styles or simpler postwar forms. Many suburbanites like the idea of smaller local governments and the suburban structures can highlight tradition and/or efficiency.

West Chicago City Hall depicted on Google Street View.

Part of the approachability of these a city hall or civic building involves how well they fit with the surrounding landscape. A Brutalist building could be more approachable with lush greenery around it. A plain suburban city hall could be more inviting if it did not sit behind a large parking lot. More broadly, American communities would benefit from inviting public spaces that are connected to civic buildings.

An on-trend Amazon HQ2

Many plans are made for large buildings in cities and metropolitan regions. Not all of them are built. But, when Amazon releases plans for their HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, people take notice because of the company and the design.

AboutAmazon.com

The centerpiece will be the site’s fourth and tallest tower, a 350-foot structure dubbed the Helix because it will feature two spiraling outdoor walkways with trees and plants from Virginia that twist to the building’s top…

Amazon’s new campus is the latest in a growing line of outdoorsy office projects, as companies try harder to offer a pleasant work environment and appeal to eco-conscious employees.

The Helix “will be an opportunity for people to literally go on a hike in the city,” said Dale Alberda, a principal at architecture firm NBBJ, which is designing the development across the river from Washington, D.C.

Plans for inside of the building also call for plenty of greenery, along with meeting space, offices and studios for artist residency programs. “You feel like you’re in a lush garden in the middle of winter in D.C.,” Mr. Alberda said of the interior design.

As someone who teaches Urban Sociology, this is right on trend in multiple ways.

  1. It is just outside the central city of the region but within a business district. (The Washington D.C. region has some unique features due to the government buildings at the center but the multinode region is found throughout the United States.)
  2. The building has numerous green features, both visible (such as lots of trees) and invisible (planning for efficiency).
  3. The design is more whimsical and playful compared to the more common glass and steel box. The structure will certainly stand out and attract visitors just to see it.
  4. The architects and the company say it is designed with people and well-being in mind, not just efficiency or costs.

Perhaps the only trend missing is a mixed-use component where the office space is combined with residential and commercial space.

All of this is for a tech company – perhaps the tech company right now – within an industry that hundreds of American communities would love to attract. Does this building work in the same way if it is built by an insurance company or as a municipal structure?

It will also be interesting to see how this interacts with surrounding buildings – including the other planned Amazon towers – and the broader community. Amazon says the grounds will be open to the public yet how many community members will be able to take advantage.

The architectural view of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation for public housing

In an interview for Chicago, former architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin responded to a question about how public housing in Chicago has turned out:

Cover of the 2000 report on the Plan for Transformation.

Overall, though, I would say the Plan for Transformation has been a disappointment. It took far too long. It built too little housing. The overall aim of integrating very poor people into their communities and the city at large has not been fully achieved. The continued segregation of Chicago by race and class continues. I guess you could say that the series helped set the agenda or some of the reforms that occurred, but I’m sure not satisfied with the outcome.

For low-income housing to succeed, it doesn’t need to be an architectural showplace. It just needs to do the basics, right. It needs to provide shelter, it needs to provide community, it needs to provide integration into the broader society, so [that] people can climb the ladder, economically and socially, if they want to. It doesn’t need to win a design award, although good design certainly can be a part of its success.

I do think it’s really important to say that design is not deterministic. In other words, better buildings will not make better people. Design is part of the equation of integrating the very poor into the city. But it can’t do it all by itself. It’s naive to think that. It needs to be combined with social service programs, and other things – schools, families that are supportive – in order for it to succeed. Design can open the door to success, but it cannot achieve that on its own.

And the corollary is true, too. You can’t blame bad design for the failures completely. You can’t completely blame bad design for the failures of high-rise public housing. The failure has had to do as much withe federal policy that was well intentioned, but foolish. Concentrating lots of very poor people and a vast high rise development, like the Robert Taylor Homes or Stateway Gardens, was an invitation to disaster. In a way, it doesn’t matter how the buildings are designed. The design simply accentuated the social problem these high concentrations of poverty.

Kamin highlights multiple important elements at play: how much replacement housing was actually created, the larger social issues still very present in Chicago (“segregation…by race and class”), and the role of design. I’ll comment briefly on each.

First, this was one of the fears of public housing residents as the Plan for Tranformation was getting underway: if high-rises are torn down, will they be replaced and by what? The Plan for Transformation has not delivered on the number of units promised. The issue of the high-rises may have been addressed but the issues simply morphed into different issues.

Second, is the issue really public housing or is it ongoing inequality in Chicago? As luxury buildings keep going up, conditions in many Chicago neighborhoods have not improved. Public housing has never been particularly popular in the United States but neither has actually acknowledging and addressing the deeper issues of why some city residents might have a need for public housing or why affordable housing is in short supply.

Third, considering the full set of forces at work in a particular context – design, social forces and processes, relationships, power dynamics, the organizations and institutions involved – is very important. If segregation by race and class is present in Chicago, certain institutional actors have particular vested interests, and the design all need to be considered, how might this change constructing buildings in the first place?

With all this said, I hope conversations about public housing and affordable housing in Chicago are not solely relegated to discussions of past decisions and poor outcomes.

The “world’s most expensive home” – $340 million! – about to go on sale

Architectural Digest displays and summarizes the features of what is a very expensive property in Los Angeles:

After nearly a decade of design and development work, what is being billed as “the world’s most expensive home” is finally ready for its close-up. Set on a five-acre parcel in the posh Los Angeles enclave of Bel Air—and aptly named The One—the 105,000-square-foot property’s interiors have remained a closely guarded secret. Until now. AD has been an exclusive look at what’s inside this record-setting property—and the design and aesthetic minds that made it happen.

Surrounded on three sides by a moat and a 400-foot-long jogging track, the estate appears to float above the city. Completed over eight years—and requiring 600 works to build—the home was designed by architect Paul McClean, who was enlisted by owner and developer Nile Niami to help it live up to its reported $340 million price tag…

Beyond the eye-catching design are the home’s equally jaw-dropping stats. There are 42 bathrooms, 21 bedrooms, a 5,500-square-foot master suite, a 30-car garage gallery with two car-display turntables, a four-lane bowling alley, a spa level, a 30-seat movie theater, a “philanthropy wing (with a capacity of 200) for charity galas with floating pods overlooking Los Angeles, a 10,000-square-foot sky deck, and five swimming pools…

Due to recently approved city ordinances, a house of this magnitude will never again be built in Los Angeles, which means The One will truly remain one of a kind. “This project has been such a long and educational journey for us all,” McClean notes. “It was approached with excitement and was thrilling to create, but I don’t think any of us realized just how much effort and time it would take to complete the project.”

What a house – and at a particular time. With concerns about mansionization in Los Angeles plus COVID-19 and its effects exacerbating inequality in capital and housing and shedding light on how much space people have, here is an incredibly large and expensive home. Given the limited pool of actors with the resources to purchase this home, these larger patterns might not matter much.

Down the road, because of its size and price alone does this become a local or international landmark? Or, because it is a single-family home in an exclusive location, will this house rarely be seen? Some of this might depend on who the owner is. The next step in the news coverage is to figure out who purchases the home and what they do with it and then the legacy of the property will come later.

It would be interesting to compare this home to previous properties that claimed to be the most expensive or the largest. I recall an effort in Florida to construct a 75,000 foot home; a documentary about the home detailed some of the process and issues that arose.

The new residential skyscrapers in Chicago continue to highlight capital flows and disparities

While reading reporting about skyscrapers going up in Chicago even during COVID-19, I continue to wonder: who is purchasing all of the residential units in times like these? Here is one example involving Chicago’s new third-tallest building.

Part of the Chicago skyline from East Jackson Drive – Google Maps

Located on a multilevel riverfront site at 363 E. Wacker Drive that belongs to the same Lakeshore East development as Aqua, Vista will house a 191-room hotel and 393 condominiums once it’s complete in the third quarter of next year.

For now, as COVID-19 rages and office cubicles remain empty, the tower sends the upbeat message that downtown has a future, and it’s not just for the 1%. Vista’s ground-level amenities will benefit ordinary citizens as well as those who can afford the tower’s condos, which start at around $1 million.

The entry point of $1 million means that the clientele for such a building is pretty restricted. The Chicago area is not a superheated real estate market like San Francisco or Manhattan or several other coastal cities yet tall residential buildings are meant for a select few.

On the other hand, another skyscraper project in Chicago might move to make their residential units available for rent rather than purchase:

The biggest Chicago skyscraper to have construction halted by the coronavirus pandemic could be revived in 2021 — as apartments instead of condos.

Unit layouts are being redesigned at 1000M, the Helmut Jahn-designed condo tower on South Michigan Avenue, in an effort to refinance the project and resume construction next year, “primarily as a rental project.”…

It was the largest condo development by unit count, at 421 units, launched in Chicago since the Great Recession all but shut down construction of condos in the city for several years. At 832 feet, it also would be the tallest Jahn-designed building in Chicago, where the German-born architect is based.

With rentals being in demand, this makes some sense in order to help get the project started again. At the same time, these rental units will not come cheap.

All of this residential construction suggests there is a lot of capital continuing to flow for prestigious building projects in desirable locations. COVID-19 might be a bit of a speed bump – whose impact will continue to be determined by its length – but big lenders, developers, and buyers still have an appetite for these prestigious residential units.

Focusing on the construction of these units can both help the public pay attention to where the money is really going as well as continue to highlight the disparities in development money by location. It is hard not to report on these new tall structures; they require a lot of effort and resources and will be part of a celebrated skyline for decades. Yet, within Chicago, as the skyscrapers continue to rise for the corporations and residents with plenty of resources, needs for housing and other development are very present elsewhere.