Recently, NIMBY has become shorthand for anyone who is set in their ways, who is old and outdated. And since the arrival of the YIMBYs, it’s become a simple one-word way to dismiss any disagreement about development, no matter the basis…
In some ways, this is a battle over how economics works: will building more market-rate (i.e., very high-end) housing in San Francisco actually help or hurt? Can we simplify housing economics in a hot market to basic principles of supply and demand? Does an unregulated real estate market actually benefit everyone? I have data and figures to battle theirs, like the recent report by the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project that shows that market-rate housing can take DECADES to become affordable to middle- and low-income residents — a timeline that is far too long for the people and communities that are being displaced right in this moment.
Without assuming too much or making ad hominem attacks, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YIMBYism is appealing to young folks who are relatively new to San Francisco, who maybe aren’t rich but who don’t appear to be poor either.. I understand the appeal of YIMBYism, because I feel it, too. I am a young, well-educated, white woman who was raised by comfortably middle-class parents, and I currently earn a living wage. I identify as liberal and progressive… So YIMBYism appeals. YIMBYs claim to have the solution for making room for everyone…their assessment of the cause of the housing affordability crisis and the solution means that I don’t have to question whether I am playing an active role in displacing folks, and in bringing gentrification. It’s not my fault that these changes are happening in this city — it’s the fault of old NIMBYs and bad planners and progressives from previous generations who thought they could keep San Francisco in stasis. I don’t have to question what I want, or who suffers when I get it. And instead of taking part in the long, tiring, sometimes fruitless fight against the money and power that steamrolls communities, I can just open my arms, and say “Yes, please!,” and embrace the changes that are happening in this city, the changes that feel inevitable and that in some ways I am bringing and that frankly, benefit me and the folks that I know….
Increasingly, the word “NIMBY” is being used to discount and delegitimize anyone who questions development — no matter the reason. This is a deceptive oversimplification, and we can challenge it by asking two simple questions before writing people off: 1) who is opposed to a particular development? and 2) why?
Is Portland about to throw away one of its landmark achievements… over a fallacy?
The City of Portland may have a “nationally recognized neighborhood system,” as the City’s website crows, but if recent reports are to be believed, there may be efforts under way to dismantle it. (See for example the recent Northwest Examiner article.) The rationale? Anti-NIMBYism, buttressed by charges of racism, classism, and an insular system that serves only the interests of white retired homeowners. Wow.
As a renter who is emphatically not retired, and current president of the Goose Hollow neighborhood association in Portland, I share the goal of a neighborhood involvement system that is much more representative, inclusive, accountable, and constructively engaged in finding win-win solutions to city problems. But before we rush too quickly into yet another profitable greenwashing or progressive-washing agenda, may I suggest that we need to look very hard indeed at the evidence, and potential fallacies in our own thinking. The City has unfortunately shown far too little tendency to do that of late.
I have recently written here about the fallacies underneath current supply-side housing policy, and the tendency to ignore the more complex market dynamics. But the City seems determined to build its way out of the current affordability crisis – which is mild in comparison to other West Coast cities, and which offers instructive comparisons with those other cities’ painful lessons (as we have also covered on this blog). There is a real danger that the City will end up with little to show for the efforts – except the loss of the priceless livable heritage that made Portland a desirable city in the first place.
Then too there are the other unintended consequences of current City policy: tear-downs of relatively affordable housing to be replaced with McMansions, high rises with million-dollar view units as the City’s ludicrous answer to affordability, and a cumbersome, irrational entitlement process that seems to achieve only the worst of both worlds – clunky “space invader” buildings that still cost too much.
Add now, “non-geographic communities” to be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry. Those of us in my own industry of design and development must be very scrupulous our ethical obligations.
At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all? In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all? Why not bring in NGOs from out of state who can represent new voices that are deemed to be under-represented, and let them have a say in decision-making? Why do we need to have local city government, or state government, or any geographic government at all? Why not simply a system of non-geographic national government, consisting of appointed panels that we believe represent the various communities that those in government think need to have a say? What’s so important about one-person, one-district, one-vote anyway? Maybe this democracy thing isn’t really working out for us after all?
I am playing reductio ad absurdum here, of course. But there is a fundamental point: geographic representation is a core principle of democracy, without which democracy itself is in question. Portland has made great advances in anchoring that democracy in the most grass-roots part of the city, the neighborhoods. This work is unfinished, yes — but it is a crucial achievement.
So let us not make the terrible mistake of tossing baby with bathwater.
There is a path to the neighborhood system reform that is indeed badly needed (one that we have already written about previously). Yes, the neighborhoods need to be more representative of their actual residents, including their minority populations, renters, young people, and many others.
But that’s just the point – they need to be representative, as neighborhoods, and not superseded and marginalized by government hand-picked (and very possibly tokenistic) “non-geographic communities.”
The City (as a polis) has every reason to insist that the neighborhoods be representative, transparent and accountable, as a basic condition of participation and funding. This is true no less of Portland neighborhoods than it is of, say, Alabama voter precincts, or any other constituent of democratic government. It is a fundamental principle of ethical government, and of “subsidiarity”. The principle of subsidiarity means that we are all entitled to democratic participation at many subsidiary scales, starting at the fundamental scale of ourselves as citizens, and our own homes and neighborhoods. We are not supposed to have our democratic participation taken away by members of a government’s hand-picked “non-geographic communities.”
To illustrate the very real alternative available, I can give an example of a major initiative for reform within our own Goose Hollow neighborhood association. As our Vide President Tracy Prince recounted in a letter to ONI interim director Dave Austin:
“The new board believed that too many powerful people had been listened to for too long, so we worked to recruit a board that better reflected our neighborhood. 46% of our board members are low income, and 37% are renters… After voting out the old board, the new board immediately voted for our bylaws to have the strictest ethical requirements of any neighborhood association. We require board members to disclose their financial interests, leave the room when their interests are being discussed, and recuse themselves from voting on their own financial interests. We believe any organization receiving city funds should be required to follow such ethical standards.”
Our neighborhood association has also placed videos of all meetings on line for any resident (or indeed non-resident) to view at any time. We’ve invited open public communication at the start and end of each meeting, and we recognize members of the audience who raise their hands throughout the meeting as well. We’ve partnered with members of other area neighborhoods to press for ethical reforms for transparency and accountability within neighborhood and stakeholder systems city-wide. We’re also working on further outreach and recruitment to get more citizens engaged (including those in under-represented communities) within our neighborhood.
We also meet regularly and constructively with developers interested in exploring win-win approaches to development and “Yes In My Back Yard”. (For example, about two weeks ago I traveled with our Planning Committee Co-chair to Seattle to meet with the architects of a new project in Goose Hollow, at our own expense; we had a cordial and constructive conversation.)
But that does not mean we are shills for development, or that we will roll over when we honestly believe the best interests of our neighborhood are not being served by a proposal. At that point we have the rights that any citizen should have, to be heard and to be involved. Genuinely involved, not tokenistically so. We now have the proper forum to do so, our own neighborhood community and its duly recognized association. This is a priceless asset that we must be willing to fight to preserve and improve.
The City has a moral choice. Will it destroy the neighborhoods in order to “save” them?
…[When we saved Greenwich Village] we were called names for this: selfish and negative. What a bunch of negative people! But everybody in the neighborhood understood…
“Also communities that want a certain thing are derided for saying ‘not in my back yard.’ If you listen to ‘not in my back yard’ people, their objection is often to something that shouldn’t be in anybody’s back yard. What has been proposed should be done differently.
“I see over and over your [World Bank] emphasis on the importance of community participation, and I want to make sure you understand what traps can be arranged under its name…. This is vicious stuff, and under such nice names: community participation, power to the people, and so on. You always have to look for the substance of these things, not how nice they sound.”
– Excerpts from “Urban Economy and Development” conference with the World Bank, February 4, 2002. Quoted in Vital Little Plans: The Short Woks of Jane Jacobs, Edited by Samuel Zipp and Nate Storring.
Building more may not lower prices, and may actually raise them. Funny stuff, that real estate: instead of just supply and demand, there’s location, location and location, and other funny dynamics. Who knew? Our much-envied big sister city in B.C., for one.
“The City of Vancouver is finally admitting that they cannot build their way out of the housing affordability crisis. The supply myth has been driving ever-escalating amounts of market housing, but affordability is getting worse, not better…
“The industry must be pleased that the same supply myth continues to be applied even though the city admits it doesn’t work.More expensive market supply will not make things more affordable. It will, in fact, continue to intensify the affordability crisis as millennials are demo-victed from their older housing and priced out of Vancouver. How many more times will the city do the same things expecting different results?”
The City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance has sent out video “fly-bys” of the proposed renovations to the Portland Building. Gone is the most horrible mistake of the original plan, the garage entry that consumes the park side of the building (likened to an “anus” pointing toward one of the most important public spaces of the city).
On the other hand, it cannot be said that the proposed new design is sympathetic to Michael Graves’ original post-modernist project. (Which, like many others of its generation, sought imperfectly to provide an alternative to the widely-perceived failures of modernism.) In what seems to be a clumsy Mies-take, dull curtain walls with black mullions replace the ground floor exterior walls. Yes, the building needed more light — but with such an ill-fitting, fashionably thoughtless design?
The website tries to explain it, showing in the process how laughably anachronistic retro-modernist the architecture profession has gotten. “Notice how historical elements coexist with the modern,” it gushes. Historical, as in 1982, and modern as in, what, 1960?
Neither is destroying the heritage and livability Oregon cities. But that’s the false choice being proposed by the new Oregon House Bill 2007, sponsored by Representatives Tina Kotek (D), North Portland, and Duane Stark (R), Grants Pass. Styled as “anti-NIMBY” legislation, it would strip local governments of most powers to regulate the design of new residential construction, except in a few cases. It would also greatly weaken the ability to provide heritage district designations, which offer sometimes crucial protection against demolitions of historic structures. Not surprisingly, Restore Oregon, the Architectural Heritage Center, neighborhood associations, and many other groups are beginning to mount fierce oppositions to the bill.
Let’s be clear about the problem. Oregon is growing – by 69,000 new residents in 2016 – and Portland is driving much of the growth (it’s in the top ten fastest growing metro areas in the nation, according to Forbes). Clearly those folks need housing, and without new supply, competition for existing supply will grow, along with demand — and prices.
But price growth does not occur in a vacuum. Part of the reason for Oregon’s population growth in the first place is its relative affordability in relation to California, Washington and other states. To some extent, those prices will tend to equalize over time, regardless of local policy. For example, a building boom might just attract even more migrants, soaking up any new supply and putting us back in the same position. (This phenomenon is called “induced demand,” and it’s the reason that facile if profitable solutions like “just build more” — houses, freeways, whatever — often don’t work.)
Nor are many of the new projects going to do much about affordable housing anyway. (Like the expensive new high rises with Mt Hood views allowed under the new Central City 2035 plan, and other inherently costly housing that will tend to draw even more high-income residents to Portland.) The City, Metro, and the State all seem at times neurotic in their determination to address quantity without quality. To protect existing residents, the region would be better off to enact targeted policies to help owners and renters, like tax abatements for owners, and incentive tools to help existing renters.
That still leaves an immediate and real problem of accommodating the growth that will occur in any case. The answer is not to blame the victims.
Existing residents are victims when they see historic buildings demolished on their streets, when they see disruptive, ugly new developments, and when they see the livable quality of their neighborhoods deteriorate. The fact is, we in the planning and development industry (and I speak as a long-standing representative) are the ones who create NIMBYs, when we trade a meadow for a strip mall, a bungalow for a McMansion — or a human-scaled boulevard for a street full of boxy, trendy-today, ugly-tomorrow “space invaders”. Residents fear that new development will degrade their quality of life — and based on the evidence of their experience, they are sadly not wrong.
But new developments don’t have to be ugly, disruptive, or destructive of our livable heritage. Neighbors don’t have to be stiff-armed by governments, invited into tokenistic “involvement” that treats them disrespectfully at best – and they know it. (I am often on the development side of that table, and I know how the game is played – although I hope I do not ever give in to that profitable temptation.)
Instead, I think we in the planning and development field — at its worst the “Architectural-Industrial Complex” if I am honest with you — need to do a more sincere job trying to convert NIMBYs to YIMBYs – “Yes In My Back Yard”. At the same time, the neighborhood residents need to do a better job specifying under what conditions that win-win approach might operate. Right now the process is unnecessarily adversarial, and the winner is too often just plain bad development.
Even more important, we don’t need a cumbersome, capricious review process that reliably seems to get us the worst of both worlds — a slow and uncertain entitlement that adds unnecessary cost, AND a result that is increasingly bizarre, formulaic, and/or disruptive of livable character. Too often the only winners in this system are those that can game it for all it’s worth. Too often the system produces jammed-in buildings, reaching the very maximum FAR and other “design by numbers.” Then architects get to sprinkle on the latest fashionable novelty eye candy — theme-packagers for toxic industrial products? — and everyone can then pretend that some great artistic addition has been made to the city. In a few decades, when it’s far too late, we realize again that we’ve been had, with yet another generation of failed modernist buildings.
Portland is full of beautiful, context-sensitive precedents for higher-density housing. A healthier process would bring in residents together with planners early on, to develop “preferred entitlement paths” for designs based on pre-accepted precedents. The precedents would demonstrate, through the evidence of history, how they would mitigate negative impacts on livability, and add positive impacts. If developers came in with proposals that fit those criteria (and others as needed, like preserving or moving elements of historic fabric) they could get a streamlined entitlement – and other incentives too for doing good development. (There are a number of examples of how this can work, including a proposal for Metro a few years back that I helped co-author.)
This is what the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, my old shop in London, calls “Beauty in My Back Yard” — a win-win approach to development. If we accept the fact that heritage and livability are important, but growth is natural (just as it was in the past), we can map out a win-win future that grows with our heritage and our livability, instead of against it.
Portland desperately needs more thinking like this, surely.
In the polarized debate over new development, it’s unfortunately common to overlook the “win-win strategies” – the ones that achieve the City’s goals of accommodating new growth with sustainable patterns, that make reasonable profits for developers, and that mitigate negative impacts on existing residents, and preserve and even enhance the existing livability of the city.
Yet good tools do exist to mitigate these impacts, and to produce good quality, win-win development. Here we focus on just one, the venerable “step-back.” This is a change in the building edge where it “steps back,” usually from the street (or sometimes the rear or side of the lot) as it gets higher. (Typically a “setback” is where the entire building footprint is “set back” from any of the property lines.)
The step-back came to prominence as part of the 1916 New York Zoning Resolution, which came in the wake of an explosive growth of skyscrapers in that city. The code required a series of step-backs as a building got taller, thereby mitigating impacts from shadowing and other negative effects. But the code had the unintended benefit of leading to a new generation of “sculpted” buildings, like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and many other icons of the era. New York architect Hugh Ferriss produced a series of influential drawings that showed how this worked (see below).
Why have we mostly forgotten about step-backs? Profit-minded developers usually make more money when they go straight up from the street. That creates more unit floorspace, and reduces the cost from tricky corners, roofing, decking and flashing that are often required for step-backs. But for a city like Portland, this is a problem: taller buildings on our small blocks tend to loom over the street, exacerbating problems with view, wind, massing, visual disruption and the like.
And of course, profit for developers is not the only criterion that must be considered. A developer has a legal obligation to mitigate the impact of any development on the quality and value of its neighbors. Property rights are one thing, but as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wryly observed — in a legal admonition that developers and libertarians alike must bear in mind — “My freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose!”
But going straight up is precisely what a generation of failed “modernist” projects did in the 1960s, with very unhappy results. The era of modernist fiascoes led to a series of reforms, in Portland and other cities. In their place we saw a generation of more human-scaled, more contextual buildings and civic spaces. We also saw plenty of profitable new development, taking seriously its civic responsibility to add to the public realm and the livable city — and to mitigate its negative impacts.
But now a form of amnesia has taken hold. The outscale modernist buildings are back, with colorful artistic packaging and all manner of ‘bolt-on green” features. These new structures are certainly profitable for the developers, and for their investors and buyers, who increasingly represent offshore capital (e.g. from China, Russia et al) – as many recent news accounts have documented.
Portland leadership has seemed curiously unwilling to engage this new wave of development and hold it accountable. Many in the City have even gone along with so-called “greenwashing” and “bean-counting” arguments, which say that anything that delivers more jobs, housing units and density is automatically a positive form of growth for the City. A kind of “Architectural-Industrial Complex” has taken the fore, aggressively promoting (without evidence) its claims for a progressive agenda.
But the lessons of history sadly demonstrate the follies of this kind of approach. And history also demonstrates that we have choices available to us — choices for better alternatives.
While we have coddled ill-conceived, out-scale developments with “greenwashing” and “kool-aid drinking” — selling the (profitable) fantasy of a utopian “Little Vancouver” — we have simultaneously created a byzantine approval process that adds major risk and cost to projects — and paradoxically incentivizes lowest-common-denominator development. A better strategy would be to reward good quality development with greater certainty and streamlining of the process. These model forms of development could be agreed to by the neighborhoods in concept, making entitlement processes smoother, less likely to face opposition, and therefore offering lower risk and higher profit to good quality developers.
There are good tools and strategies available for a more successful, win-win approach to development. Portland architect Laurence Qamar, for example, recently created a series of step-back proposals for the development of the Woodstock Corridor. Instead of the boxy, ungainly “space invaders” that have bedeviled other parts of the city, Qamar’s step-back code would assure that buildings step down to the street, and to existing residential and low-rise areas. Developers using this code would trade the cost of the step-backs for a much greater certainty, stronger community support, higher quality and appeal, and lower risk for the project overall. Thats a win-win by any definition.
Portland is not the only city in which good intentions to involve neighborhoods has devolved into a dysfunctional system bent on suppressing “NIMBYs.” From The Guardian:
[London] Mayor Sadiq Khan recently released a good practice guide for regeneration. He recommended residents take part in shaping plans at an early stage.
Yet the consultation process remains a common complaint. It has been criticised as a tokenistic exercise, conducted alongside a PR drive to persuade residents of the merits of a plan already decided without them. Nicholas Boys Smith, founding director of the social enterprise Create Streets, believes the failure to listen to existing residents is a missed opportunity to get good ideas and “co-design” things together with other stakeholders.
“Quite often residents are rightly cynical about consultation,” said Boys Smith.
Is Portland heading for a disastrous failure, as the result of inadequate development plans for the new square being proposed for Northwest Portland? If so, on May 4th you can help prevent it.
The site is the former Con-way trucking company property, so the project is variously known as “Con-way Square” or “Slabtown Square.” For many years it all looked so positive – Portland would gain a new neighborhood square that functions like a European piazza, a gathering place where children can play, people in the neighborhood go to shop or talk, sit out at cafes and restaurants, and pass through, offering the opportunity for social networks to form; a place where parents and elders relax on benches with backrests, in the sun or shade, to talk or watch children play.
Seeking to sell off most of their 25 acres of land in Portland’s Northwest District, the trucking and logistics firm Con-way Inc. collaborated with NW District residents and the City to develop a Master Plan that would please all, and provide a model for mixed use human scale neighborhood development across the US. Residents’ special request was for a neighborhood square, and thousands of community volunteer hours were donated to help move the project along.
It looked as if Portland’s urban planning might once again lead American cities and create a place rare in America, a catalyst for community, bringing diverse people together and generating democratic dialogue. The master plan specified a flexible space, “to support commerce, activities, and events such as farmers/public markets, dining, fairs, art shows, and small musical performances, etc.”
A square like this provides an ideal setting for children to learn social skills. And on top of that, a sociable square is good for everyone’s health! Research shows that when you have a rich network of friends, neighbors and familiars whom you meet daily, you do not get sick so often; if you get sick it is not so serious; and you live to a riper old age. This is described as having a strong “social immune system”.
The block chosen for the neighborhood square, 290 West, is deliberately located at the southern end of the Con-way development to knit together the historic, primarily single family housing population with the new residents in condos and apartments. While the overall density was set at maximum 3:1 Floor Area Ratio or “FAR”, it was envisioned that the southern section, particularly around the square, would be much lower (there is no minimum FAR here), and the unused FAR would be transferred to the northern blocks to create taller buildings against the freeway. The lowered FAR around the square would enable the design of a successful, human scale piazza. With 3 and 4-story townhouses and apartments over shops, it would step down the development to the scale of the historic neighborhood.
As the master plan specifies, “massing is carefully addressed to ensure that new structures are compatible with desired neighborhood characteristics… to balance desired densities with livability and positive urban qualities, with a strong emphasis on the quality of the pedestrian realm.”
It was specified that the massing of adjacent buildings should “optimize solar exposure”; that the public realm should be expanded by “articulating the façade plane to step down to the open space”; and that “the size of the square should be approximately 135 x 135 feet”, i.e. 18,225 sq. ft. In a sociable square, surrounding buildings are low enough that when a group stands talking in the center of the square each person can see a little sky above the buildings she is facing. The square must receive morning and late afternoon sun, especially in spring and fall. These requirements call for building setbacks, and limit building heights on the East and West sides.
Guardian Real Estate Services eagerly took up the challenge. To design a successful neighborhood square would be a tremendous PR coup. The value of property adjacent to a successful square would be high. The popularity of the square for neighborhood and city residents would ensure a legacy of success for Guardian. And a successful new square would ensure press coverage in architecture, real estate, planning and business media throughout the US, if not the world.
Guardian hired a young firm, YBA architects, to design the square and the mixed use housing to frame it. For over two years they worked with the Northwest District Residents Association (NWDA) and a Square Subcommittee. But the process fell apart because Guardian insisted on using almost the maximum 3:1 FAR on the site. At every meeting it was pointed out that they were trying to cram 8 pounds of sand into a 5 pound bag – it just would not fit. NWDA was not satisfied, and the Portland Design Review Board rejected it.
Guardian has now hired the large architectural firm LRS, which has successfully built many buildings in Portland. Their proposal, which they will take directly to the Design Review Board on May 4th, shrinks the square to a claustrophobic courtyard in a monolithic 3-sided building. The U-shaped building overhangs the square by 20 feet on East and West sides, leaving a space from building wall to building wall of only 65 feet. The size of this “courtyard” open to the sky is now 130 x 65 feet – less than half that recommended in the Master Plan. Moreover, two and a half sides of the U-shaped building are seven stories high! Sunlight will not penetrate this chasm for more than a brief period in the middle of the day. The dark, narrow, oppressive gap between the building wings is unsatisfactory even for a private courtyard. And in a ludicrous maneuver, they pretend all the space beneath the overhanging buildings, and two dark tunnel “breezeways” beneath the 65’ deep blocks are part of the “square”.
What is Guardian thinking? This is a worse solution than before, in no way fulfilling the requirements of a neighborhood square. Do they think Design Review will accept it because LRS has been successful in passing review so many times before and must be well known by members of the Committee? Or do they plan, if rejected, to sue the City, assuming the Commission will buckle under the threat?
I think Guardian has been thoroughly unrealistic throughout this process. In the beginning, they insisted on cramming almost the maximum allowable building volume (3:1 FAR) onto the site, even though it was clear in the General Plan that density on 290 West should be much lower in order to create a successful square, and the surplus FAR should be transferred to the northernmost blocks. Now, Guardian has apparently bought the adjacent two streets, and transferred the FAR from the streets onto 290 West to dramatically increase the FAR on the 200 x 200 foot building site to 4.8:1. Who benefits from this?
This rationale is intolerable. Guardian’s proposal in no way satisfies the performance requirements of a neighborhood square. The only solution is to design the square to be a truly successful square, with mixed use, human scale buildings stepped back to maximize sunlight, and then transfer (sell back) the unused FAR for future development on the northern blocks.
I, for one, would gladly donate more time and effort to bring this about. A successful, beloved neighborhood square would be a grand contribution to the health and wellbeing of generations to come!
In recent blog posts we have taken our colleagues in the architecture, design and development communities to task for “drinking the kool-aid” of a fashionable but damaging form of Neo-Modernism. It might well be asked, what’s the alternative, then? Our answer is to bring up the “b” word – that is, “beauty”, in the ordinary and humanistic sense. Beauty in the sense that human environments have been loaded with up to “modern” times – and a word that has been all but banished from the profession in the last half-century or so.
Why is that? In part because architecture has stopped being about providing artfully designed human habitat, and started being about making avant-gardist art-statements, as a language for marketing and propagandiizing industrial systems, but that has become complicit, reactionary and even corrupt. (As we will discuss more below.)
This approach says, let’s just take the industrial systems of large expanses of glass, shiny steel, blank metal panels and so on, and compose them in pop-arty ways. This is what we have to do to be “of our time,” right? Maybe we can even be really avant-garde, and make some really exotic swoopy forms that no one has seen before. WOW! Look what we made! (I’ve seen this kindergartenish impulse first-hand in many of my students in design studios in the US and Europe.)
But there is a deep philosophical problem with such an approach to human habitat – and a great many thoughtful critics have pointed it out. In a word, it contributes to the growing ugliness of the world. And in some deep and important way, that has a relation to the growing unsustainability of our world too.
And by the way, it also has a close relation to the natural reaction of residents to these proposed buildings: “Not in my back yard!” But on the other hand — and as we will discuss more in a future post — what if the proposal was “beauty in my back yard?” What if it was much easier to convert residents to “yes in my back yard” or YIMBYs? How many of Portland’s current stalemates and difficulties could be alleviated? How much better would the overall legacy be (as opposed to an art work here or there) for future generations?
This question arises at an interesting time in the sciences — one that gives us a very different picture of natural structure from that of the early Modernists, as we have written about elsewhere. Beauty, viewed from a more recent scientific lens, is starting to look less like some bourgeois artifact from “ye olden days” and more like a basic property of biological systems – and a necessary property of healthy ones.
Specifically, beauty seems to be the name that we give to an experience of coherence, health, integration, natural orderedness. This is no less important in human environments too – although of course, there is scope for other qualities in human environments, like surprise, novelty, expressiveness, and so on. But the problem arises when we focus too much on those aspects, to the detriment of ordinary experiences of beauty. Then we compromise the needs of our own clients and public, for the sake of our own artistic and financial agendas. Professionally speaking, this is a deep rupture in the question of our ethical accountability to human well-being.
Recall the warning of profession leader Rem Koolhaas:
“The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say that any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value… So there are many problems, first of all our work, which is not able to find its way out of this recurring dilemma, then there are the many reasons to question our sincerity and motives.”
What Koolhaas was referring to is the subtle corruption that takes place, encouraging us to justify our acts of industrial marketing as somehow lofty goals of art or sustainability. Are they? Have we really examined the evidence? Or do all our works just add up to urban noise and decay, slowly devastating cities around the world? We think there is reason to be troubled, even deeply troubled, by what has happened at the hands of the design professions (and the development professions that are served by them, often poorly).
At the same time, defenders of this Neo-Mod approach can be vicious when attacking even tenuous new works of non-modern architecture – the kind of viciousness that is seen in a cornered animal. “It’s impossible to do this kind of hackneyed historicist kitsch without coming off as shoddy, fake, inappropiate for our time,” they hiss.
But how sensible, really, is the thinking behind them? That yes, the beautiful old places everywhere around us are wonderful, beloved, cool, and sustainable, precisely because they have sustained — but we must never, ever build anything like them again? This seems downright lunatic.
Is the architecture “of our time” doomed to be ugly? Why is that? Is it because we are wicked and must be punished, with in-your-face artiness of questionable quality and appropriateness? This is a kind of architectural masochism – or worse, sadism.
On the contrary, is there not a necessary place for the “good background” and the “good contextual,” that provides ordinary delights, and supports an active, intricate public realm? Is that not an important quality for a city’s ultimate sustainability? I think so.
Is the shoe now on the other foot — that the Neo-Modernists are now the reactionary ones, defending a failed experiment in human habitat, in the words of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, “almost neurotic in their determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success”?
Has the “every building a Mod art object” approach failed us? I think so.