Surveys show that many people are puzzled by new building designs. A provocative new article suggests the origins of their aesthetic lie in the brain disorders of an earlier generation of architects.
The authors of a recent article on the Common Edge website don’t mince words. We live in a world of increasingly foreign, blank and detail-free buildings because the founders of the movement that still governs how buildings are designed had brain disorders.
Citing new scholarship as well as evidence from neuroscience and medical research, authors Ann Sussman and Katie Chen lay out a thought-provoking (and likely debate-provoking) argument:
How did modern architecture happen? How did we evolve so quickly from architecture that had ornament and detail, to buildings that were often blank and devoid of detail? Why did the look and feel of buildings shift so dramatically in the early 20th century? History holds that modernism was the idealistic impulse that emerged out of the physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War. While there were other factors at work as well, this explanation, though undoubtedly true, tells an incomplete picture.
Recent advances in neuroscience point to another important factor: one reason modern architecture looked so different than past constructions was because its key 20th century founders literally didn’t see the world in a “typical” fashion. They couldn’t. Their brains had been either physically altered by the trauma of war or, like Le Corbusier, they had a genetic brain disorder. And while their recommendations for “good design”—a new world, a clean slate—certainly reflected their talent, ambition, and drive, their remedies also reflected their brains’ specific disorders.
The authors go on to cite recent scholarship on the highly influential architect Le Corbusier, and the evidence that he suffered from autism. That condition resulted in eccentric approaches to handling visual information, and disregard for the normal interests of everyday users:
“For all his genius, Le Corbusier remained completely insensitive to certain aspects of human existence,” Weber writes in Le Corbusier: A Life (Knopf 2008). “His fervent faith in his own way of seeing blinded him to the wish of people to retain what they most cherish (including traditional buildings) in their everyday lives.”
Other founders like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were also victims of brain changes as the result of traumas suffered during World War I, write the authors:
The impact of World War I turns out to be quite significant for other founding modern architects, too—for different personal reasons. Both Walter Gropius (1883-1969), who brought the modern curriculum to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the 1930s, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) who did the same for the Illinois Institute of Technology, likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or brain damage from surviving years of military conscription in the German Army which lost more than two million men in the four-year conflict.
The authors suggest that Gropius, in particular, was inspired in his radically simplified design ethic in part by his experience of post-traumatic stress as a result of the war:
Again, given the disorder, his directive to students to “start from zero” in their design process, or his dismissal of architectural history as entirely irrelevant, becomes effectively reflexive, since avoidance of the past is a PTSD response.
Does this matter? Yes, because if architects think certain buildings are positive contributions to the environment, but the rest of society does not, that raises the question of who gets to decide. Can architects dictate to others what they have to experience, even if the others don’t like it? Is that professionally responsible?
In fact many studies show that there is a strong divergence between what architects think is a “good” building, and what almost everyone else does. For example, a paper by Robert Gifford et al. (2002) cited extensive evidence of this divergence, and concluded: “If we are ever to have more delightful buildings in the eyes of the vast majority of the population who are not architects, this conundrum needs study and solutions.”
A paper I wrote with the physicist Nikos Salingaros also speculated on the reinforcement of this divergence as the result of cult-like architectural training — a phenomenon I have observed first-hand, both as a student and an instructor of architecture, at the U of O and elsewhere. (My Ph.D. is also in architecture at Delft University of Technology, a program currently ranked third in the world; before that I did grad work at UC Berkeley, ranked fourth.) I saw first-hand that my profession certainly has its own silos and its own blinders — and its own economic incentives, biased toward the status quo.
Do Portland architects care about this issue? Should they?
Vancouver urbanist Patrick Condon calls for a land value tax to house the fleeing middle class
Our friend Patrick Condon has a very insightful new article that critiques the failed “supply-side” approach that has been used to address Vancouver’s soaring housing cost – an approach that Portland is also using, with similarly dismal results. Patrick looks at economist Henry George’s proposal for a “land value tax” to provide affordable housing for a much broader segment of the market:
“We have unwittingly unleashed a speculative frenzy through our policies, a frenzy that is enriching only those speculators who enjoy the natural monopoly created by the limited supply of land.”
“It may now be of value… to tax land more heavily, using the proceeds to insure that decent housing exists for everyone who works in this city. Not just 20 per cent of us, but everyone.”
“It seems time to admit that depending on the market itself to solve our housing problem will never work. The market is broken and requires intervention. One need only look at the failing Cambie corridor experiment, where a single house lot is on the market for the outrageous price of $11 million dollars, doubling in price in only 18 months. We are enduring a tsunami of international capital which is being used to create speculative real estate values that are robbing us of the community we have collectively created. This uncontrolled, illogical and immoral speculative wave is forcing our sons and daughters to other lands to survive. A tax on land speculation, tried with success in other nations, is worth considering.”
Tax Land to House Vancouver’s Fleeing Middle Class
We don’t have a housing problem, we have a land speculation problem.
The City of Vancouver, in the context of its “Housing Reset” initiative, has set a goal of 20 per cent affordable housing for new construction. This is a laudable goal, but it makes you wonder about the other 80 per cent. Is our collective ambition to have a city where only one out of five of us can afford to live? And who are those other 80 per cent anyway?
Let’s take a step back in history. In both Canada and the United States the “20 per cent affordable” target has come out of a somewhat wonkish process. First you assume that the market can supply housing to 80 per cent of the employed and able bodied. That leaves 20 per cent that the market can’t reach and thus need a helping hand from the state.
That strategy has worked OK in most metropolitan areas. In most metro areas in the U.S. and Canada there was a firm relationship between the average family income in the region and the average cost of housing.
But we all know that here in Vancouver that is no longer true. Our average cost of housing is about three to four times higher than it should be if you use average family income as your measuring stick.
So while a housing strategy that targets 20 per cent affordable housing might make sense in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it is clearly not calibrated to the enormity of the task at hand here in Vancouver, where the majority of working residents need affordable housing, not just 20 per cent.
This begs the question: what can we do instead? A possible answer: tax land to house the middle class.
This might take a bit of explaining so bear with me. What we have in Vancouver is a classic case of speculative investment going into non-productive uses — that non-productive use is land which by itself doesn’t produce anything. Now certainly that speculative value shows up on the provincial ledgers, especially in the form of transfer taxes and other taxes on real estate sales. But land doesn’t produce anything. Factories make things, stores sell things, barista’s foam things, farmers grow things, miners mine things. These activities combine capital (i.e. the money needed to purchase the store, the factory, the espresso machine, the mine, etc.) and labour (jobs) to produce new value. These are productive uses of capital. Productive combinations of capital and labour are the very engine of wealth creation, also known to some as capitalism. But “rent seeking” in the form of land speculation adds nothing to the capital value of society and does not, according to some very eminent figures, add wealth — it consumes it.
Even Adam Smith himself, known mostly for his faith in the “invisible hand” of free markets, derided the passivity of land owners who produce nothing when compared to the farmer, craftsman, or factory owner: “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.”
With this lens we might now separate the productive and non-productive elements of our local economy, and conclude that we don’t really have a housing problem, we have a land speculation problem. I and others have many times delved into where all this money is coming from and what impact it has on our local wage earners (all bad), so no need for more of that here. What we all want to know is what to do about it.
Vancouver’s own Matt Hern points to a potential solution in his new book What a City Is For.
He is among those who would revive the proposals of Henry George who was an economics phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century. His proposal was simple. Tax only land: do not tax other property or incomes. In this way, the burden of maintaining society falls most heavily on those who passively benefit from the work of others. Land speculation yields an unearned “wind fall” profit which can and should be heavily taxed. In our city, all of the value in the land is the consequence of generations of public efforts. Roads, parks, SkyTrain systems, airports, hospitals, all of it, gives our land value. And yet the benefit of this public effort accrues passively to a few private land owners, and increasingly to speculators, who, as Adam Smith lamented, “reap what they never sow.”
It may now be of value to take a similar approach, i.e. to tax land more heavily, using the proceeds to insure that decent housing exists for everyone who works in this city. Not just 20 per cent of us, but everyone. And not by depending entirely on the marketplace to supply 20 per cent “affordable market rate” housing in most new projects as the city currently proposes. Affordable market rate housing (beyond being an oxymoron) translates into very tiny apartments, generally unsuitable for the domestic needs of the families Vancouver needs to retain.
Certainly those at the top end of the income scale can be housed by the market, as can those who increasingly resort to the “bank of mom and dad” for their six-figure down payments. But what of the rest? Under these circumstances more than half of those who presently work in the city (or, importantly, those we would like to attract here to support other aspects of our local economy besides real estate) would not be accommodated. And 20 per cent of our families living in “affordable” micro suites just won’t do it.
A more appropriate and achievable goal might be to supply housing for closer to 50 per cent of our wage earners, housing that would be protected from the market and not be its victim. This would mean an additional 35 per cent truly affordable and right-sized housing, on top of the roughly 15 per cent of this city’s housing that is already supported in one way or another. Funding for some of this may be partly in the pipeline, with provincial commitments to supply thousands of units; but that won’t be enough. Perhaps under our present circumstances it’s time to look further afield for models, like Vienna where over 60 per cent of housing is held outside of markets, or Singapore where the number is over 80 per cent. In these attractive cities, wage earners are guaranteed an affordable home and housing stress on the middle class is virtually eliminated.
And where would this additional money come from? Not from income tax or tax on productive businesses, but, as Henry George would recommend, on our land. We have unwittingly unleashed a speculative frenzy through our policies, a frenzy that is enriching only those speculators who enjoy the natural monopoly created by the limited supply of land. They invest but do not have to worry about risk or competition and this is not a proper fair or logical “market.” The City of Vancouver currently tries to capture up to 80 per cent of the “land lift” (value increase) created by rezonings in the form of charging a Community Amenity Contribution tax on development. But increasingly we lose out as the speculators move in well before the rezoning application process begins, allowing them to claim that the market can’t support a high CAC tax given how much the land cost them. This is going on right now all along Cambie Street where the city’s green light to development has unleashed a speculative torrent of value created by public investment in rapid transit.
A more even citywide land tax in the form of a higher citywide or district-wide Development Cost Levy would reduce the rage of speculation that focuses on one or two new designated development areas of the city, while generating the hundreds of millions necessary for the city to become the Vienna of Canada. A key benefit of this model, as proven in Vienna, is that it reduces the speculative value of development land without increasing the market cost of units, while allowing the city to purchase land for housing at a lowered cost (due to the way that the tax on land mitigates speculative increases in the cost of development land throughout the city).
It seems time to admit that depending on the market itself to solve our housing problem will never work. The market is broken and requires intervention. One need only look at the failing Cambie corridor experiment, where a single house lot is on the market for the outrageous price of $11 million dollars, doubling in price in only 18 months. We are enduring a tsunami of international capital which is being used to create speculative real estate values that are robbing us of the community we have collectively created. This uncontrolled, illogical and immoral speculative wave is forcing our sons and daughters to other lands to survive. A tax on land speculation, tried with success in other nations, is worth considering. No amount of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic will do. Vancouver real estate is a rigged game of monopoly with a few winners and a vast public body whose lives are severely diminished. A city that is unaffordable to 80 per cent is not a goal worth reaching, nor is it a city worth living in.
But at least global capital will have a place to invest!
On Thursday, September 7, the Portland City Council will hear testimony from citizens on the adoption of the Central City 2035 plan, which was approved previously by the Planning Commission.
That happened in spite of a finding by the City Auditor’s office that the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the West Quadrant Plan – a key part of the CC2035 plan — did not properly disclose potential conflicts of interest. The finding by the Auditor’s Office, and specifically by Ombudsman Margie Sollinger, also included a requirement that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability secure disclosures after the fact by members of the SAC.
The Ombudsman found that the SAC members are “public officials” under Oregon law, and therefore must not enrich themselves in the course of their conduct. In five cases, SAC members refused to comply with the disclosure requirement, and at least two of those members had major real estate holdings in the West Quadrant Plan that likely increased significantly in value as the result of their votes.
Many of us (including the two bloggers for Livable Portland) believe it is urgent that we restore the integrity of the planning process, in perception and in reality. We believe this will require, at a minimum, a re-convening of a new stakeholder committee charged with re-assessing the heights and FARs of the West Quadrant, comprising a, quote, “broadly representative… cross-section of affected citizens.” This is the requirement of Oregon’s Statewide Planning Goal One – and a basic principle of public involvement, and transparent, accountable government.
Perhaps a new SAC will be convinced on the evidence that building heights of no more than 100 feet will be fully adequate to accommodate a more benign, diverse, diffuse form of urban growth, and to preserve Portland’s priceless livability and heritage. In any case, we believe a proper review is essential to the integrity of the process.
If you would like to testify at Thursday’s hearing, you are advised to arrive by 1:30 to sign up at Council Chambers, 1221 SW 4th Avenue.
Another blow for “voodoo urbanism” in Portland and elsewhere.
In a convincing rebuttal to the myth that high-rises can help address housing shortages and loss of affordability, Forbes Magazine has cited statistics of a growing glut of high-rises on the market – at the same time that the crisis of affordability (in Portland and other cities) continues to spiral out of control.
The author is Joel Kotkin, a demographer and urbanist with whom the authors of this blog have had big disagreements in the past, and still do. Mr. Kotkin seems to be fond of car-dominated sprawl, and not particularly appreciative of urbanism, i.e. livable neighborhoods with walkable streets, ample parks and squares, transportation choices and a mix of amenities. (Say it ain’t so, Joel!)
Well, urbanism is not the same thing as a city core, and while Mr. Kotkin perhaps doesn’t get urbanism, the boosters of hypertrophic growth in the core – what we previously referred to in this blog as “voodoo urbanism” – don’t seem to get the possibility of a more geographically diverse urbanism either.
The population of the Portland metro region is 2.3 million, but the population of Portland itself is only 670,000 – meaning that over 70% live outside of Portland. Even fewer live in the truly urban core of Portland, where high-rises are economically viable.
Kotkin rightly points out that focusing on this small area with high-rises creates a great many negative outcomes – of just the sort the authors of this blog have been warningabout:
“…a high-density strategy tends to raise the price of surrounding real estate…”
“Critics also note that high-rises in urban neighborhoods often replace older buildings, which are generally more affordable.”
“High-density housing is far more expensive to build. Gerard Mildner, the academic director of the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University, notes that development of a building of more than five stories requires rents approximately two and a half times those from the development of garden apartments.”
“…in many cases, these units are not people’s actual homes; in New York, as many as 60% of new luxury units are not primary residences, leaving many unoccupied at any given time.”
“The notion that simply building more of an expensive product helps keep prices down elsewhere misses the distinction between markets…”
“These expensive units are far out of reach for the younger people who tend to inhabit the neighborhood, instead serving as what one executive called ‘vertical safe deposit boxes’ for people trying to get their money out of China.”
“In the end, the real need is not for more luxury towers. What is needed, particularly in America’s cities, from the urban core to the urban fringe, is the kind of housing middle- and working-class families can afford.”
This is very true – although Kotkin seems a little too focused on the fringe. It still seems true that he conflates “suburban” with “sprawl,” and “center city” with “urban”.
But the “sub-urbs” can be urban too – that is, they can offer livable, walkable neighborhoods with a diversity of amenities and transportation choices – and here is the real challenge for most people in most cities, including Portland.
So the question is NOT how many people we can jam into high-rises in the core – again, “voodoo urbanism,” imagining that tokenistic over-building there will somehow solve broader problems, when in fact it exacerbates them – but rather, how well we create a truly continuous, diverse, polycentric urbanism.