Architecture vs. Economy
Stephen Muir and Travis Telemaque
Progress is generally defined as a development towards a better, more improved, modern condition. When we think of Architecture, one may assume that it is always getting progressively better through research and new developments. But often times money is just thrown into a project and the research behind it is ignored. Architecture, when driven by the desire for monetary and economic growth alone, produces uninspired buildings, infrastructures, and developments that ultimately damage the cultural, social, and economic fabric of a society. Three examples throughout history exemplify this idea. The rapid reconstruction of 18th century London after the great fire is an example of the negative effects of hasty development based on economic need rather than human necessity; Rapid urban expansion in the late 1800’s, initially caused by the introduction of the railroad, is an example of the fast growth of cities which in effect caused the vast growth of industry, overcrowded urban areas, and poor working and living conditions; and lastly, the housing boom of the 1920’s in which architecture, along with other factors, caused the Great Depression similar to the Spanish crisis of today. Understanding the architect’s role in the economy and how the influence of money and other incentives in architecture have directly affected society in the past will allow us to better understand the roots of the current housing crisis that is upon us and give us knowledge of ways in which we can avoid a similar situation in the future.
At one point in history, it was human necessity and livelihood that drove the design of buildings with limited influence from political and economic stressors, unlike architecture today. When we look at the mud-brick adobe house of the pueblos which boasted small windows and thick walls to stay cool in the hot climate, or the Ancient Roman forum and the variety of buildings and infrastructure that surrounded it, designed exclusively in response to cultural needs, or the Teepee of the Great Plains Indians whose houses were easily assembled and disassembled to support their nomadic society, we can clearly see Architecture as a response to the individual. Architecture today however, is being pushed by monetary based systems such as economics and politics to produce bigger and better buildings for lower and lower costs. Justin Davidson gives us a good look at what architecture has become in his article “The Glass Stampede”, in which he compares 55 new buildings constructed in New York City within the last ten years to those buildings that they replaced. According to Davidson ” In the past fifteen fat years, more than 76,000 new buildings have gone up, more than 44,000 were razed, another 83,000 were radically renovated” in New York City Alone (Davidson, 2008). Buildings that were once designed to last for decades are now being replaced by disposable structures that seem to be increasing in size and decreasing in quality.
Charles Jencks, an American architecture theorist and critic, explains this phenomenon in his publication “How Big is Bad?”. He writes, “Over a threshold of about a half-a-million square feet, every skyscraper ten floors higher than the next is likely to be twice as uninspired, and the same goes, beyond a certain point, for every extra $10 million dollars spent on a building. So the $60 million dollar, 60-storey skyscraper, compared to a $20 million 20-storied one, is likely to be 16 times as dull.” This is due to a concept known as the law of diminishing architecture. An example of this would be an extra floor being added to an already 50-storey skyscraper. The new floor is not just equivalent to one more at the same price, but rather an extra cost for every floor. The weight and services of the new floor impact the price and integrity of the entire building. Therefore, bigger buildings of the same quality as their smaller similar counterparts cost exponentially more, causing conflict between quality and price in the architecture of today (Jencks, 2002) . A look through architecture’s history reveals multiple examples of the quality of architecture diminishing due to economic and monetary drivers which, in effect, caused severe problems within that specific society.
Reconstruction of London
London, England 1667-1679
The rapid reconstruction of 18th century London after the Great Fire of 1666 exemplifies the cultural issue that surround economic driven architecture. The Great Fire destroyed 85 percent of the city, forcing London into an era of rapid rebuilding. Rather than using this opportunity to improve on the human living conditions and elevate London to a much more modern city for that time, “Houses and tenements were thrown together in a slapdash manner, with little attention to plans or codes. Buildings were patched up, subdivided, and subdivided again to cram as many people into as little square footage as possible, which left a jumble of narrow, unlit passageways between residences and shops.” Walking through these dark and dingy alleyways was not only unhealthy, due to the unprecedented amounts of garbage on the street, but it was also extremely dangerous, due to the criminals that inhabited those spaces. Buildings that were intended to be temporary dwellings soon became permanent ones as many poor residents moved into unoccupied housing. Another major issue of this fast production approach to rebuilding London was that poorly made residences and buildings had the tendency to collapse do to construction errors.
“Here falling houses thunder on your head, And here a female atheist talks you dead.”
– Samuel Johnson
Because the quality of London’s architecture was not taken into account when reconstruction first occurred, poorly placed buildings and horrendous infrastructure established a certain standard of living which was far worse than the standard before the fire. Dirt, grime and animal manure collected in the streets while consistent rain simply added to the mess. A lack of a proper sewage system led to human waste being dumped out on to the street, dead animals such as cats, dogs, rodents, and even horses were left to decompose in the road, and even human corpses were found in the darkest corners of London. Eventually, this overpopulation and lack of hygiene led to a high mortality rates. Almost half of all newborns died before they reached the age of 2. (KQED Inc). In an effort to come up with a fast and cheap solution for London’s housing problem, a plethora of new, more destructive problems emerged, thrusting the city into one of its darkest times to date.
Rapid Urban Expansion in America
United States 1870- 1920
19th Century America contains perhaps the most important historical aspect of American Urbanism. Rather than being built around the people that used the space, Architecture was built as a tool to make money which in effect, caused problems within the realm of human health and society. Thanks to the construction of the railroads, new technologies developed for constructing buildings, and the idea of Manifest Destiny fully embedded in the minds of Americans, the west exploded with job opportunities and promise for thousands. “In the 50 years from 1870 to 1920, the number of Americans in cities grew from 10 million to 54 million. Into the 20th century, cities grew in population and expanded geographically by absorbing nearby communities.
In 1898 New York City acquired Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx as boroughs, political divisions that are like counties. Chicago grew from about 300,000 inhabitants in 1870 to more than a million in 1890.”(countriesquest). The annexation of suburban towns and villages was a common practice of to accommodate the sheer rate of growth in these cities and was a “perfectly acceptable method of fueling the municipal spirit”(Popovich, 2009), though many would disagree. Along with destroying the current settlements to make way for this population explosion, Landlords began to take advantage of the Architecture that was already existent, sub-dividing houses into separate spaces as a way to accommodate more people and gain more money per square foot. These low-rent apartments tended to be unclean, unsanitary and overcrowded. “Not surprisingly, corruption was rampant in city government and city services, in the construction industry, and among landlords and employers. High rents, low wages, and poor services produced misery in the midst of unprecedented economic growth.” (countriesquest). The city landscape quickly turned from small and prosperous to big, unstructured, and unwelcoming.
The Housing Bubble of the 1920’s
United States 1921-1929
There is a commonly reoccurring, conflicting, and irrational attempt to create the best quality buildings for the smallest amount of money. As we move away from ancient building history and get closer to modern society, architecture starts to move away from a structure supporting human interest and migrates towards being a system solely based on influencing and sustaining the economy. In a speech given by David Rockefeller, a retired chairman of the Chase Manhattan Corporation, he emphasizes the current economic idea of achieving societal wellbeing. “Again, let me quickly add, before they come to retract my Chicago degree, that making profits must come first. This is particularly true today when pressures from lean and efficient international competitors, egged on by institutional investors are even more intense. Profits are still the most important instrument we have to promote the broader welfare of our society. But, at the same time, we must be sensitive to the other publics upon whom our companies depend.”(Rockefeller, 1996). However I disagree with this concept completely. When it comes to societal wellbeing, it is the public and not the economy that is the most important factor simply because the health of the economy depends on the social and cultural health of the public. Thus making the “most important instrument we have to promote the broader welfare of our society” Architecture. If architecture follows the ideologies of economic growth it will always fail because the human is always left out of the equation. The greatest example of this
consistent failure is the reoccurring housing bubble one of which helped spark the worst economic collapse in history. Housing bubbles, which have been extremely common since the age of Industrialization, typically owe their existence to low mortgage and interest rates and bad lending practices established for economic growth. They are often seen as their own entities, separate from the actual economy. This, however, is not true. The Housing bubble of the 1920’s directly affected the economic implications felt after the stock market crash of 1929. In 1926, the housing market collapse caused aggregate investment to decline and foreclosures to increase which, in effect, added to and worsened the affects of the Great Depression. The collapse of the housing market, while it didn’t “derail” the economy, “explains the autonomous drop in investment on the eve of the Great Depression and seriously weakened the balance sheets of many households and banks.” (White, 2009), described by Eugene N. White of Rutgers University’s Department of Economics as the first of “a one-two punch” to the economy. According to Economist Fred Foldvary, “Not all recessions are real estate
related, but the majority of real estate busts start most recessions. There have been six economic depressions in the U.S. since 1837.” Economist Homer Hoyt originally identified an 18-year real estate boom and bust cycle in Chicago. “Real estate values peak a year or two before a recession. A real estate boom and a growing overall economic boom proceed the recession.” (Foldvary, 2013). Based on this information it is safe to assume that architecture, in the form of residential and commercial constructs, can cause serious damage to the economy, the very thing that this architecture was repurposed for.
The role of architecture, in this sense, is a designed structure built for a specific purpose or subject. In other words, form and function are specifically tuned to that whatever that purpose or subject is. In this current system however, where economic growth and monetary strength is the primary subject, human wellbeing suffers. Something is clearly wrong with our current architectural mentality. Architecture should be for the interest of the public first (Bussel, 2004). Building codes are not put into place for the protection of property, they are solely designed for the protection of human life and comfort. So why should architecture (the subject for which these codes are made) be any different?
Architecture has to involve creating some kind of change… It is an opportunity to address social and political arenas through design.
We must first learn from our past to build for human interest rather than economic benefit, because once the people are accounted for, the economy will follow.
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Housing Bubble vs. Great Depression
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