Further thoughts on declining architecture

Last week I asked why urban architecture appears to have declined in the United States. Readers have offered two further suggestions (also read the trackbacks on the original post):

1. Property taxes create an incentive to improve interior quality rather than exterior quality

2. The need to accommodate automobiles makes it harder to design attractive buildings and cities.

The New York Times ran a feature story on exactly this question. Here is a key passage:

As more high-profile buildings by foreign architects rise in the United States, and as computers allow architects to strive for engineering, design and construction complexities never before imagined, a gathering rumble can be heard across the profession about the way America builds. The country has garnered a reputation for overlooking gaping joints, sloppy measurements and obvious blemishes, and refusing to deviate from even the most outmoded standardized practices. Having exported its expertise, in the 80’s and early 90’s, to destinations from Singapore to Dubai, it is now facing stiff competition from Europe and Asia, where the building traditions favor singularity, craftsmanship and durability over speed and cost.

Most recently at Seattle’s new Central Library, Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect, set out to debunk what is perceived as an all-too-common attitude in the American construction industry: if it looks hard to build, don’t, because it will be too expensive. According to Joshua Ramus – a partner at Koolhaas’s firm, Office of Metropolitan Architecture, who is in charge of American projects – no American contractor wanted to take on the building’s highly unusual structure, which is folded like a gigantic mesh party napkin. “They said there was no way anyone could do that on that budget,” Mr. Ramus said of the $165 million library. “We said: `Invest in thinking. It may be expensive but it’s a lot cheaper than bad building.’ “

Construction in the United States relies on the quick fix, said Sara Hart, a senior editor at Architectural Record. “Got a gaping one-inch space between frame and window? Just fill it in with silicone and call it a day. Not perfectly flush or plumb? Who cares!” is the typical American response, she said. “While in Germany or Switzerland, they’d rather die than have a gap of more than one-eighth or even one-sixteenth of an inch.” And though no one is calling Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall slapdash, most American construction aspires to cookie-cutter commercial development rather than high-profile brand-name architecture. Furthermore, in Europe, buildings tend to be smaller and clients accustomed to spending more. One way or another, the conditions have made for considerable bragging rights on the part of European and Asian architects.

Dana Buntrock, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Japanese Architecture as a Collaborative Process” (Spon Press, 2001), said she once believed that quality was tied to wealth. “Now I am beginning to wonder if well-built architecture occurs only at a very fragile economic moment,” she said. “You need not only affluence, but a group of people who are well paid enough to remain in the crafts and building trades even though they are intelligent, and you need the overall size of an architectural project to remain relatively small.” While enclaves of craftsmen and small companies cultivating specialty talents, like customized steel work or casting plaster, are growing in the United States, large corporate construction companies still rule the sites, with their supersize-me approach to building.

Some of these claims, of course, beg the “why” question. The article also notes that design approval now requires more sign-offs than ever before, which tends to encourage a least common denominator approach to moving forward.


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