Saturday, August 04, 2012

Of Taste and Transactions: Explaining the quality of construction in the United States

Among the younger set in my profession, there emerges a bitter realisation on the difference in architectural quality between what they produce on the job and what gets published in the official peer magazines. It's similar to the gap between the kind of work they were doing at school and the mundane jobs they find themselves in at the office. The question must certainly arise--"how come everything I work on seems to boil down to conventional materials, systems, and forms that seem to have been done over and over since time immemorial, and yet there are architects half-way around the world who seem to come up with a building that's so wizbang?"

Even as I count myself fortunate enough to have worked on the "wizbang" variety of projects throughout my career, it becomes hard not to ponder on this very question when I sit through weekly lunch-hour product presentations. A convenient means of fulfilling required continuing education credits, they are for the most part sales pitches by companies to convince us to specify their product on a current or future project (this happens in virtually any of the licensed professions). Often the products are very innovative and cutting-edge (i.e. expensive) and they proudly show images of their product applied on built projects just featured in the most recent issue of our cherished design magazines. Not only are the sample projects presented are largely European in origin, the products and the companies that make them are often European as well. When it comes to products having to do exterior finishes, synthetics, finely detailed cladding systems or high-tech mechanical systems, the narrative at these presentations seems to go: "this product has been around in Europe for over thirty years, but only in the last five years has it become available to the U.S. market…"

While one can come up with even more technical explanations on why European construction seems so much more sophisticated, what is on the minds of many of my colleagues is this message:

American architects need to get with the program and raise their design quality up several notches, or they will be left behind when competing against other more sophisticated firms on a global scale. Framing buildings with two-by-fours and covering them with wood siding and asphalt shingles might pay the bills in the place where you practice, but you will never be able to say that it meets the global standard in construction methods. What may seem a practical way to build given cost and resources is considered by many outside the U.S. as backward, disposable and cheap.

While I and many others would argue on the merits of traditional American construction, I've come to the realization that the above message isn't really about such technical issues. Instead, it's sort of an underhanded cultural critique- Americans don't invest much care and attention to buildings. And it has little do with actual know-how.  It has more to do with buildings' place in a culture. To put it crudely, the making of buildings is perceived less as an act of culture here in the U.S. than it is elsewhere. Granted, all building can be valued with a spectrum that ranges from a purely economic and utilitarian endeavor at one end to a strictly cultural, even ego-driven, undertaking on the other. Each and every construction market consist of projects inspired by a mixture of both economic and cultural motives. Based on my own professional experience, American developers and owners seem to view buildings as part of a larger financial transaction, an instrument towards a more important goal: acquiring or conserving wealth.

Foreign clients are not averse to this view, but they are willing to place varying levels of importance on a project's cultural impact, even if it’s the result satisfying their personal ego or seeking a political advantage. The advantage of people treating buildings as economic instruments is that it results in a more robust construction environment, hiring more architects in general to oversee a wealth of mundane, budget conscious projects. In places where making money matters much less because making a cultural statement is the goal, overall construction activity is anemic, requiring fewer architects to work on a dearth of ambitious, often dazzling yet expensive projects. A transactional view of architecture compels firms to calibrate their designs in line with a client's goal in making a profit, being more competitive in the marketplace, and rewarding technical specialization. In contrast, the cultural view reinforces a building's capacity to express a sense of place, its people, the epoch, its technology and the prevailing socio-political order. Practicing architecture in this context favors a more academic approach and encourages an avant-garde to help define a project within a particular point in history.

To accept, for the sake of argument, the idea that Americans are more driven by profit than by culture naturally implies that they are shallow. Many people outside the U.S. seem to agree, but this is because they misunderstand the role that culture plays in the lives many Americans. At the core of an American's identity is that you are an autonomous, unencumbered individual. Cultural inheritance from family and upbringing plays a small part compared to the importance of being able refashion oneself according to whatever values that feel most true or authentic to him or her. In America, you can choose your culture, you can choose your tribe, and you can change these things over the course of your life as circumstances change. If there is anything constant about Americans throughout history, it's that they move around a lot, and have adapted their cultural identity as something that they take along with them--portable. At the same time, they easily embrace new cultural identities as a means to fill holes in meaning that were left behind in their old places of origin. For example one of the best ways to understand many American's lifelong loyalty to the college they once attended is to view it at as means of establishing a kind of tribal identity that didn't exist strongly enough elsewhere in their lives. Culture becomes a commodity that can be bought, worn, exchanged, and disposed of at will. From this perspective , it isn't a surprise to see inherited culture, even ethnicity, as an oppressive force that obstructs a person to truly realize oneself. There is an inevitable aspect of rootlessness to it all, which to many people would see it as more alienating than liberating. It's a great environment for outsiders since they are given plenty of space to thrive.

In much of the rest of the world by contrast, inherited culture is at the core of one's identity and informs the general sense of social life. Culture is rooted in every sense, from the land where it sprung, to the way it has been inhabited over a long history and the language that evolved within a defined territory. One is born into an inescapable cultural reality that is the product of a long history, even prevailing genetic patterns on a society that has stayed put during all that time. Tradition holds considerable sway in most of these nations, offering a secure sense of identity to people, a set of accepted values and a clear life purpose. People tend to stay at or pretty near the place of their birth, establishing a strong emotional connection to a place unknown to most Americans. Many who uproot themselves to live in the larger city find it difficult to belong in their new environment and are steadfast in maintaining connections to their native towns and villages. Inevitably, a thick layer of social conformity affects daily life in such places, as a means of enforcing social cohesion and assuring continuity.

Even in other nations with long histories where outward examples of tradition have been jettisoned in favor of a secular modernist culture such as in Europe, there is still a high degree of cultural conformism that informs the "proper way of doing things". Though stripped of their historical underpinnings, secular modernism (of which progressivism is synonymous) pushes for a values and ideals that are perceived as inevitable and the embodied will of the people, not that of individuals. Outsiders tend to suffer in this environment, and it's not surprising that rooted cultures have trouble assimilating newcomers. Ideas that react against this conformity can't prosper and frequently causes the people who don't want to conform to leave for places where their ideas are more tolerated.

Whether culture is rooted and permanent or not goes a long way into explaining the qualities that influence how we build. As much as we think the cost is the biggest factor in how we design and what gets built, where cultural authority resides in a society is just as important. If this authority lies in tradition or deferred to elite cultural producers or tastemakers, an individual will build according the dictates of the prevailing culture that surrounds him at that point in time. However, when cultural authority resides in individuals, based on one's personal taste, or an authentic understanding on who that person believes to be, buildings become a manifestation of the individual and results in a constructed landscape that lacks stylistic coherence or harmony. In the U.S., people build to express their own personalities, from what they like to what they imagine themselves to be. In my experiences in Europe, people build according to a kind of established stylistic template that expresses a person's acceptance of prevailing cultural norms of the times, a kind of self-effacing architecture. Even as the new clashes with the old within the same block, all the buildings within are alike in consistently representing the spirit of their times. Both the old and the new convey an exquisite attention to detail, as if they are being judged by how well they embody prevailing cultural ideas, not in how they allow the owners within to express themselves and their particular needs.

There's an inherent discipline at work where culture is rooted, as rules governing verbal and artistic expression have had time to become refined and quite sophisticated. Often these rules aren't openly published, but instead are absorbed and reintroduced as 'taste'. Cultures that are either defined by tradition at one end or modern sophistication at the other enforce a standard that judges a work to be acceptable in the form of taste. They therefore do not tolerate tastelessness and are deeply suspicious of iconoclastic or self-centered individuals. Taste enforces a consistent rigor, aesthetic harmony, and a comforting order to the visual environment. To assert oneself in open rejection to prevailing taste is to earn public opprobrium by being called 'tacky'. As much as I personally champion individual freedom, it comes with a responsibility that arises from personal virtue--taste--developed through serious study and reflection, is definitely a part.

This proposed office tower in Texas is an excellent example
of how communities' attempts to raise the quality design
are often afflicted by their shallow understanding of traditional
design and an inability to avoid tackiness. This seven-
story tower is wrapped in a half dozen distinct facades, so
as to give the illusion of a village built over time. The effect
is naturally superficial, and will instantly date the building
and cheapen its value over the long term.
Alas, much of what we see in places where culture is not rooted, such as the U.S., is indeed tasteless. Individual satisfaction has become so paramount that taste has become an entirely personal matter. To declare something to be "in poor taste" is to be accused of being a snob. A couple of American developers I have worked with proudly proclaim that there is no such building that is truly ugly, as long as the owner is happy with it--it's all relative in the end. Just as there is proud strain of anti-academicism in mainstream American life, which can harbor both a healthy skepticism of elite ideas and an unhealthy aversion deep philosophical thought, an accompanying elevation of the casual over fine art has engendered art forms that are highly infectious and accessible yet shallow and disposable. Conversely, the less stylistic refinement due to taste matters, the more a construction project is driven towards reducing cost and making a profit. A project's transactional value comes and goes relatively quickly in the life of a building, and often influences whether a building is built to last or will become obsolete in a few decades. If making money is the main goal and taste doesn't matter, why bother wasting money on looks?

Because building is more than anything else a public act, and it therefore comes with an additional responsibility towards the culture in which it exists. For as much as taking the financial risk benefits the investors and all associated designers, engineers and contract labor, it must benefit the public's self-regard. After all the payments have been processed and all the certificates are handed over, the question still begs an answer: What does this building say about who we are, where we are from and where we stand as a community? In highly rooted cultures, this question is answered pretty early in the design process either by following tradition or adopting a style that enjoys a dominant consensus. In un-rooted cultures such as in the U.S., this question is answered often too late, if at all, since they often question the very existence of any kind of communal identity.

But does ignoring something as subjective and as intangible as a new building's cultural value come at any cost? I would argue that in the long run, there is certainly a major cost to avoiding some level of cultural responsibility. It distinguishes communities that exhibit sophistication, permanence and integrity from those saddled with crudeness, transience, and waste. Building with an eye for taste and quality may not result in apparent short term benefits such as expense and profit, but it often yields longer term benefits such as resiliency, lower life-cycle costs, and a shared preference for preservation and restoration, as opposed to costly demolition. This is not to argue that aesthetic taste and quality should override fundamental transactional considerations. A building's primary value is worth the cost that the owner is willing to risk, that its construction makes him better off because it functions well and successfully carries out his expectations. Still, applying design sophistication to a building adds intangible value that reveals itself in through time such as prestige, beauty, fostering a sentimental attachment to the community.

Still, young communities will usually want to grow and prosper, and there must be an unrelenting openness to attracting business and the accompanying development that it brings. Industries take root, infrastructure expands and services arise and deepen according to the needs of the a community's growing population. Aesthetic sensibility will find its way in projects where owners value it, but it in this early phase, it should never get in the way of growth. Official restrictions that favor of aesthetics too strongly will risking snuffing out potential and critical development, but too much of a free-for-all in what is allowed to be built risks saddling the community the withering detritus of cheap development. There is an ironic bright side to the wood-based platform construction that characterizes much of the construction in the U.S.--it makes buildings essentially temporary, easy to change or tear down depending on whatever the local economic needs of the site are at a point in time.

There comes a point where the expansionary phase winds down, as growth changes from quantitative to qualitative in nature. Thanks to industries and businesses that have created a relatively stable and highly productive economic base for the community, its population now demands quality to match its affluent lifestyle. They start building homes that specify higher quality construction, or renovate exiting homes with either 'good bones' or sophisticated detailing and ornament. They want structures that exhibit craftsmanship, some artistry, and durable materials. They also want higher quality retail and restaurants, and find that luring them into their community requires spaces that provide costly amenities and a signature architecture that contains "character" and a "sense of place". When popular chains that cater to the middle to lower classes move in, they are instructed to adopt a nicer architectural envelope or at least change their prototype or risk refusal by the council. Undeveloped land becomes rare and commands a premium, both in price as well as in expectations by its residents. These residents are more aggressive in using zoning towards raising the value of property both monetarily and aesthetically in the form of development codes, which prohibit the use of certain materials due to their cheap and thin appearance while mandating masonry, and regulating the massing of new structures so as to not appear too "boxy" or "bunker-like".

Typical strip center in the U.S. that illustrates a developer's
minimal interest in a quality design. The envelope mostly
consists of foam with a thin coat of stucco (EIFS), which
tends to fail at the slightest impact.  The stone at the bottom
is likely the result of a city zoning code demanding a
minimum use of a natural material so that the building doesn't
look deliberately too cheap. The awnings above are also
 like the for the same reason. If the developer had his way,
all of it would be EIFS or painted concrete, the decorative cornices
would be gone, and there would be fewer awnings. So long
as he's managed to lease it at a desired rate, he's accomplished
his goal.
As the community prospers a shift from a transactional view to a more cultural view of buildings occurs among its residents. And yet they often don't know what this change should look like. Though they are very clear in expressing what they don't want, very rarely do I sense that these residents can specifically describe what they do want. They lack the ability to articulate what a culturally confident, more appropriate architecture is supposed to look like. In newer towns and cities where there is little to no built historic fabric to draw from, forming an enduring architectural identity is daunting, since there is almost nothing to anchor the community's place in history. In addition, contemporary communities, especially those uprooted from tradition and having devalued art appreciation as part of one's education, often cannot confidently impose a system of taste that could steer the future aesthetic direction of their built environment. They grab the thin straws of historicism, hoping that past styles could inform the design of new buildings without having any kind of rigorous or in-depth knowledge of those styles. For example they adopt for an "Italian" style for a new development, and achieve this by applying it in the most superficial, often abstracted way. They ignore proper classical orders, the judiciously applied materials and the craftsmanship involved in the making o f their most cherished monuments and townscapes in old Europe and America. Having no real experience or understanding from which to make sound aesthetic judgments, and lacking builders who know how to convincingly recreate the charms of past construction, they go on to approve watered-down kitsch designs that instantly undermine their desire to appear refined. These buildings tend to age badly, since the timeless aspects of the historic architecture they borrowed have been ignored. The chance to raise a community's cultural profile is wasted, and the lingering tastelessness is once again there for all to see.

Every place, regardless of function or history, belongs to some sort of cultural landscape. Some places are filled with buildings, streets and landmarks that overwhelmingly cry out their noble cultural heritage. Others are little more than clusters of simple sheds, from the more functional ones dedicated to industry, to the more 'decorated' ones for retail, leisure and worship. If they convey any cultural meaning, it's that the transaction and function matters over everything else, with attention to the short-term financial bottom line leaving little to no room for artistic flourish. Cultural signifiers on building is understood to be a surface application, as opposed to incorporating it at every phase. Responding to those who criticize the quality of construction in the U.S., the problem isn't a lack of technical competence among its designers, engineers and builders. They have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to innovate and compete in the global arena. Instead, the challenge is a lack of serious cultural inertia on the part of owners who don't attach themselves strongly to any strong cultural identity in the first place. If their personal attachment to a place is that thin, why invest in making a structure permanent within it?

One can endlessly berate this state of affairs in American construction, but it won't change anything. Once people can fully benefit from the commodification and improvement of land, anything else that doesn't add short-term monetary value will not get much attention. In an individualistic society, what one's culture is and its importance becomes an individual choice, and whether to instill in a building some architectural flourish is part of that choice. Imposing some kind of directive for higher quality design from above is out of the question, particularly in a society that is innately antagonistic to elite opinion. However it can come from the ground up, much as it did not to long ago in the U.S., especially before the middle of the twentieth century. There is an abundance of very straight-forward, functional and modest structures in countless towns and cities throughout the country that exhibit a pretty high level of stylistic refinement, often clustered in what are now endearingly called "historic districts". A group of brick warehouses, tall storefronts fronting Main Street, train depots, school buildings, detached homes--all were embellished with ornament, or composed according to stylistic templates popular at the time. Even as there was much less capital to build back then, it mattered a lot to owners for their structure to contribute to the establishment of their community as a kind of cultural bulwark in an largely untamed land.

We can view this cynically as a sentimental notion, but a lot of average Americans back then believed such a thing as taste, and lived with the expectation from their peers that they would know how to separate the beautiful from the dull. To be educated was not only knowing to read, write, and count, but it was also to acquire some notion of culture and to respect it with sensible judgment. At the same time, property ownership and development was a lot more laissez-faire than it is today, with little zoning or form-based codes to be found, and municipal masterplans a rarity. They didn't seem necessary, since there was a sense of rootedness among people back then, even it consisted of their own cultural inheritance or was imported form the cosmopolitan or foreign influences. Whatever the source, it mattered, and it demanded that an 'educated' person have some minimum level of knowledge of culture and how it applies to one's life. Our problem today is that we have either thrown away our heritage or have a very shallow understanding of it, and rather than subscribing to an overarching standard of taste, we ourselves become our own unrestrained (and uninformed) arbiters of what's great.

I'm not suggesting that we should defer to our taste-makers at once and hang onto every word they say. I'll be the first to admit that the public intellectuals of our time have failed us, not only because they deny the very notion that something can be actually good or beautiful, but because they are contemptuous of those who still believe and want to maintain some kind of broadly shared standard at all. If taste-makers apply any standard, it often has to do with his own personal values and achieving certain social and political goals, while beauty takes a back seat. Creative types such as students and young architects absorb the styles depicted in magazines books that select works based on a specific agenda of the editors (self-anointed tastemakers), then begin their careers unprepared in confronting clients with completely different expectations in what they regard as beautiful.

We therefore shouldn't rely on acquiring a sophisticated level of taste from on high. Instead, we should nurture it from within. We should be disciplined, make a genuine effort in learning about what we like, why we like it, what it truly takes to make the things we like. We should also dig deeper into what influenced the things we like, what cultural values inform these things, and whether we closely identify with these values. And finally, we should hold ourselves responsible to what we like, to be able to defend what we like on multiple levels, and that in making something for the public to experience (such as a building, or even just an interior renovation), we are true to ourselves and manifest our beliefs as faithfully as possible. To pursue building exclusively for financial gain betrays not only a more visually enriching environment, it betrays a primal need to see an important part of ourselves in the way we give shape to our lives.


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Unknown said...

I have read this article and happen to agree that many developer-driven projects, particularly in the US, are going to be dated by their faux facades. The way you choose to link cookie cutter strip mall construction and the American dis-interest in quality in architecture is interesting. While I'm not entirely sure that this is a fair assessment of construction quality...point taken. My question for you is this: Is it really fair to ascribe to foreign cultures a great sense of dedication to their construction processes as a whole. Most of the rest of the world doesn't have the wealth to create as many architectural structures as Americans do. In China, the government spends hundreds of millions of (their) dollars at a government level to create "wow" buildings...The French create "wow" buildings. The Russians are increasingly building "wow" architecture...but with the collective's money. Private business, individual home owners, and small businesses probably create works that are significantly more "American in quality"??? Perhaps I'm being defensive. And perhaps you are being apples to oranges in your comparisons??? If you ever want a "flavor" of opinion on architectural trends, I wrote a post on the direction of contemporary "green" architecture pointing out the lack of sincerity in the movement. Love to have your opinion and offer a link to:
Sincerely, John Mele

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