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.

Maybe modernist houses will appeal to millennials – in certain circumstances

Architects and cultural critics often like modernist homes even as Americans largely do not prefer them. But, perhaps millennials will select modernist homes:

“For a while people were just tearing them down, but people are seeking them out now — they’re the anti-McMansion,” says Ellen Hilburg, co-founder of the real estate resource Mid Century Modern Hudson Valley. “For some people, it’s a nostalgia factor. But Millennials are discovering them, too. It’s an aesthetic that appeals to people who are aware and environmentally conscious.”

There are a number of pieces of this story that suggest preferences for modernist homes are tied to particular traits of the homeowner or observer:

1. A higher social class.

2. Higher levels of education.

3. Rejection of consumerism and the implied materialism and conformity that goes with it.

4. An interest in the “cool” factor of a home.

5. Living in a community – such as a wealthy, middle to upper-class suburb – where modernist homes are present and accepted.

Putting these categories together, there may indeed be a slice of Americans who prefer modernist homes. But, this also sounds like a taste connected to cultural capital, to invoke Bourdieu. In other words, expressing a preference for modernist design is connected to social class and education that not all Americans have access to.

Just how many church-to-residences conversions are taking place?

If churches and other religious buildings present attractive opportunities for redevelopment in urban neighborhoods, how often does this happen?

I hope someone is tracking all of these switches from religious structures to residences. The impetus to collect this data could come from multiple sources. An organization might want to look at changes in a neighborhood or geographic area. An organization of developers or architects might see this as a business opportunity. A researcher could be interested in housing changes, particularly from an unusual source like unused religious buildings. Presumably, this kind of housing does not go for cheap and could exacerbate existing issues in urban areas. Communities themselves might want to know how many religious buildings are being converted. This could affect tax rolls – moving property from non-taxpaying religious groups to residents brings in more tax money – and nearby residents could be affected.

From what I can gather, these conversions are happening at a regular pace. Yet, it is hard to track the scale from the occasional article. My own research on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago area did not find many churches that became residences. Indeed, former churches could fill a range of uses: the most common was a religious buildings for another religious group but churches could also be reused as daycare facilities, community centers, and offices.

Based on this, I would guess there are not that many churches being turned into residences in terms of sheer numbers. At the same time, of the religious buildings that are sold, I would guess a good number are converted into residences when located in more desirable neighborhoods (though I am sure some buildings are also demolished to make way for new residential buildings).

Forces behind church-into-residences conversions

The conversion of religious buildings into residences continues in many American cities. This is the result of at least three larger forces:

  1. The decline of numerous religious groups which means religious buildings are no longer used for worship. This decline has been going on for decades in a number of denominations, freeing up numerous churches and other structures.
  2. The demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. While the converted residences are not often cheap, they are often in desirable neighborhoods and locations. The same reasons religious groups chose particular locations also can make them attractive for residents. (The flip side is that religious buildings in less desirable neighborhoods can languish.)
  3. The unique architectural features a religious building can provide including tall vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and brick and stone work. These features can be incorporated into new dwellings and provide very different options compared to new construction.

For example, a recent Chicago Tribune piece about a former church in Logan Square highlights these issues:

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety…

All nine apartments in the converted church are one of a kind and configured with either two or three bedrooms. Three apartments are on the main level of the church, and three apartments are on the garden level. Three more are stacked within the former attached rectory behind the church. The first residents arrived in April…

“People can say it’s a really cool building, but if it doesn’t have closet space or if it doesn’t have a washer and dryer or room for their couch, it’s not going to work for them,” he said.

A recently closed church and sold building plus a desirable neighborhood plus interesting building details equals a redevelopment opportunity.

But, just how many of these conversions of religious buildings are taking place? This is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.

Possible limits even as more Americans seek housing that accommodates multiple generations

If more Americans want to live in multigenerational households, can they find homes that make room for this arrangement?

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

Just one problem: American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it…

The advent of commercial air travel and the rapid expansion of American suburbia made inexpensive, single-family housing–and cross-country travel–attainable for more and more people. By 1950, just 21% of American households contained two or more generations. New funding for nursing homes from the Federal Housing Administration led to a boom in private nursing homes in 1950s and ’60s, and over time it became more and more normal to self-select into senior housing rather than living with your children. By 1980, the number of multigenerational homes had dropped to just 12%, according to Pew

But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children, like the architect Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, particularly assisted living centers. Her personal experience with multigenerational life eventually led to a book, Hive, a practical how-to for other families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together. In large part, Hive addresses the unspoken taboos and tensions of living with your parents and grandparents.

No doubt there are complex social and cultural shifts behind this. The 20th century of mass American suburbanization may be an outlier in human history with the significant move to private single-family homes.

The larger issue that is reflected in this housing crunch may be that of increasing individualism and autonomy in recent centuries. Even the discussions of possible solutions to this housing issue betray this. The nursing home frees the family from obligations to care for elderly or infirm family members. Cohousing provides more community but residents still retreat to private units. Making alterations to a single-family home to accommodate family members can often lead to in-law suites or separate entrances.

Put another way, economic conditions and/or changing relationships between generations mean that more families want to live together but there are limits on how much autonomy or privacy family members are willing to give up. How a family arranges the space in its home could take many different forms. I don’t think anyone is recommending family members all sleep in just one or a few rooms, something common to much of human history. But, living together also does not necessarily mean that family members sharing an address actually see each other that much. A converted single-family home could be more like a duplex than a tight multigenerational setup. Family may be good to have close but perhaps not too close?

Or, to put it a third way, how many Americans would choose these multifamily or cohousing setups if the price of housing was not too high? The social benefits of a multigenerational family home could be high but Americans also value their autonomy.

 

If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.