Restoration Through Architecture
Michael Montalvo and Benson Worthington
Throughout the course of human history, cities, empires and countries have seen drastic fluctuations in their economies no matter how powerful they stood at one time. Whether it was a war that put a city in uncontrollable debt or a new technology that allowed for a boom in revenue, cities economies are always doing one of two things: increasing or decreasing. Expansion is often experienced after a depression, for it is the severity of the circumstance that influences great people to act. Groups of motivated people may be at the helm of these changes, but there are many factors that play a significant role in the revitalization of the economy. Everything from influential leaders making critical large scale decisions, to contractors making small aesthetical changes can make all the difference. Over the past few centuries we have seen that architectural design has played an essential role in the shaping of cities future’s to such an extent that cities are actually using design to revitalize their economies. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain enhanced capital through a drastic increase in tourism, The Georgian Squares used real estate to assist London’s economy in a new era of thriving, and the rebuilding of Chicago after the fire of 1871 lead to the development of the skyscraper, moreover a booming economy. As we dig deeper into all these events, the role of architecture design in the stimulation of economy’s becomes increasingly evident.
The Guggenheim Effect
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, 1997, Frank Gehry
It takes a combination of many factors for a city to make an economic turnaround, but it is always possible to trace the revival back to a single person or event. In the case of Bilbao, Spain we can trace the massive growth of the city, and even the entire country, back to one building. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao provides as a perfect example for ‘that one building.’ Bilbao was a city just waiting to be a tourist destination, “the city is situated in the area of Bizkaia and is surrounded by a fertile landscape with forests, mountains, beaches and steep coasts. All this makes Bilbao a privileged destination for visitors.” The Guggenheim has acted as a catalyst for the city’s economic prosperity, “but the museum did more than alter Bilbao’s skyline and bring in tourists – it changed the city’s soul.” In the 1980s Bilbao was left with the remnants of collapsed steel and shipbuilding industries, leaving uncanny unemployment rates, decaying docks and pollution everywhere. The city was desperate for change. Although Bilbao made efforts to clean up transportation infrastructure and abandoned industrial sites, they knew that it was culture that the city was lacking. As a result “they spent more than $100 million to partner with New York’s Guggenheim Museum,” and on the banks of the Río Nervión their own museum was erected in four years’ time. The Museum showcased contemporary and modern art from some of the most renowned artists of the time, but its magnificence did not stop there. “Looking more like a gigantic sculptural installation than a building, the Guggenheim also brought art out of the galleries, onto the streets, and into the everyday life of the city.” The Guggenheim brought an entire ‘new life’ to the city, and almost equally as important it brought light to the wonderful culture of the city that had already existed. For example, in no way did the Guggenheim bring great food to Bilbao, they had always presented a rich and cultural dining scene, “but the flair of the Guggenheim did create a psychic shift by putting a premium on creativity and wit” which enhanced its preexisting glory. With the popularity that such a unique architectural style attracted, architects from around the world now desired to design within the city of Bilbao. This influx of higher standards and creativity went on to enrich the architectural integrity of the city as well. Today, the Guggenheim is “seamlessly integrated into the urban context,” its interconnecting shapes of stone, glass and titanium unfold into the old industrial heart of the city. This obscure design style actually created “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.” The Guggenheim brought unity to the city, making connections with old architectural styles, while welcoming all contemporary design. Bilbao had been revitalized from the ground up, and the massive influx on tourism skyrocketed revenues on hotels, transportation, local shops, restaurants and attractions. It is safe to say that the Guggenheim turned Bilbao’s economy around, as the taxes on tourism revenues alone were able to support all costs funding the museum’s existence. This one building brought excitement, movement, new experiences, new people, and a new culture to the city of Bilbao, it has forever affected the course of many lives and has brought a sense of completeness to Spain.
Culture Through Design
Georgian Squares, London, England, 18th Century
Like the Guggenheim, The Georgian Squares in London have massively assisted the economy of a city that is still flourishing to this day. Starting in the 1730’s, these real estate squares acted as cultural hubs, outlets to the nearest entertainments, and places of gathering for the surrounding communities. Architecturally, the city plan illustrates just how widespread these Georgian Squares are — they’re all over the map right next to parks, pleasure gardens, fields, theaters, and inns. The squares are named after the Georgian period in which London experienced huge growth, the population increased from around 5 million to around 9 million people by the turn of the century. “London’s quays were handling a staggering 80 percent of the country’s imports, 69 percent of its exports, and 86 percent of its re-exports, notably tobacco, sugar, silks, and spices. Meanwhile, the City grew into the world’s great financial center, rivaled only by Amsterdam.” The ‘squares’ had a large role in this growth through the use of their theaters, pleasure gardens, inns and the street shops with the latest fashion of the day that developed a rich culture and attracted many young and wealthy people of the day. Taking a step back to the 17th century, the fire of 1666 forced London to build from the ground up, and it wasn’t until the 1700’s when London really started to enter into their ‘golden age.’ The Georgian Squares had a significant role in assisting London en route to economic prosperity. It was on an architectural level that these Squares revealed their genius and the significance to London’s history. Architects, planners, and designers were challenged to imagine places, circumstances, and situations prior to the actual construction of these events taking place. As mentioned earlier The Georgian Squares were the cultural hubs — people from all over the city and all over the world would come to experience the dancing, singing, street performances. It was necessary for the architect to consider how these spaces would be used and how they would handle growth and change. The areas were designed with simplicity and their forms enabled a large mass of people to gather in one area. The property of these Georgian Squares has increased in value over time because of the location and how architects conveniently and seamlessly developed a style of buildings that were functional, beautiful and of high class. The Georgian Squares sit beautifully next to theaters, parks, pleasure gardens, and street shops in London’s ‘Hollywood’. The real value behind these buildings is the underlying fact that many of the surrounding listings and available spaces turned into flats, penthouses, luxurious condos, shops, and coffee houses. The coffee houses were a huge hit and the fact that this set up was right next to open areas with countless of people exploring, walking, and coming together in these central Georgian Squares. This highly developed culture attracted people from all over the world. John Quincy Adams, stayed at one of the most famous Grosvenor Square, “Built between 1725-1731 at the center of the Grosvenor estate. It is the 2nd largest Square in London. The average cost of homes originally built there was the amazing sum of 7,500 pounds–at a time when a time when a farm laborer received less than 40 pence, there are 240 pence per pound, per day during the high demand harvest season. Naturally the majority of the original residents were titled. The area came to be called Little America because John Quincy Adams lived there while he was the American ambassador to Britain.” The standard of these buildings and urban setting were set high, their elegance and luxury did nothing but catapult London’s economy into prosperity. The architects of the established developments were able to create complexes where their true potential would be realized long after the completion of their construction. A large level of insight was required to establish something that would define that future lifestyle of a city, but the conditions London was in at the time and the ambition of the architects managed to succeed. The Georgian Squares of London were like nothing ever seen in history and still have major value in the real estate market today.
Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1871, William Le Baron Jenny
Like London’s fire in 1666, people tend to look at the event only from a negative perspective, focusing on fear and loss, but in reality it is these events that reveal the change that needs to be made. Look at the Chicago fire of 1871 and ‘the spirit of recovery’ that came about in its aftermath, “the development of the skyscraper can be understood not only as an architectural style, but as the manifestation of tragedy turned into triumph by human will.” It was the urgency and promotion of recovery that created an opportunity for architectural innovation. Although fires had been appearing in dense ‘wooden cities’ across the nation, it was the Chicago fire that sparked a major architectural shift. To put its magnitude in perspective, nearly 300 died, 18,000 buildings were leveled, 100,000 people were made homeless, and over $ 200,000,000 (⅓ of the entire city) was destroyed. An event of this magnitude would bring the entire city together through a shared motive and begin one of the biggest recoveries of all time. Joseph Medill and Potter Palmer set a tone of optimism that “echoed up and down the social ladder as Chicagoans rose to the challenge.” At the time Chicago’s central district covered only a 9-to-10-block square resulting in nearly astronomical pricing of the land, the price of a quarter an acre had went from 130k to 900k in 10 years’ time. The only option for expansion was up, but masonry drastically limited that option for even more massive footings and thicker foundations would be required. The architects made a vision of a new style of tall office buildings, and it was realized only when they thought to apply modern bridge construction techniques to basic building structure. This simple idea revolutionized the current dominating inner-city structure, “the rapid construction, lower labor costs, and increased floor and window space offered by skeleton construction led to greater and quicker profitability.” The new age of skyscrapers was born and of course their achievement was no accident, but the opportunity had in fact been created by accident. Most of the buildings that arose in the following 20 years “combined the old masonry construction with newer techniques in fireproofing, grillage footings, and the use of iron-and-steel skeleton construction,” but by the 1990’s steel skeletons were providing almost all structure. The building which was considered the prototype of skyscrapers was called the ‘Home Insurance Building,’ “it was supported by masonry piers and walls in the lower floors, apparently because of building commissioner requirements, but steel beams were used in the upper floors.” Although this construction barley resembles the skyscrapers of today, it set the tone for new development and provided a standard for people to build off of. While steps were taken to create an even more dynamic structural system in Chicago, architects were looking for ways to build “a functional, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing building.” The concept of ‘building up’ sparked a new trend of efficiency and the development of these two concepts is what lead to the modern day skyscraper. As the transition to the new building style was implemented, many business opportunities arose, for the ability to house many employees in a single building revolutionized the way companies ran. “Between 1870 and 1900 Chicago grew from a city of 299,000 to nearly 1.7 million, at the time the fastest-growing city ever,” their economy was unstoppable and still continues to hold strong to this day. What started as horrific series of events that almost crushed the city of Chicago, was turned into an opportunity for a new urban architecture which is now essential for the modern day function of every city in the United States. It was one of the greatest concentrations of creative architectural talent in U.S. history, and although the root of these changes had laid in the minds of our human race, it was architectural design that allowed Chicago to come back even stronger than it had existed before.
What started as an instinctive practice of survival for the early human race still today plays a key role in the development and growth of highly functioning communities of humans across the globe. Architectural design is essential in determining the blueprint of all urban developments across the world. These blueprints bring a strong structure and foundation that allows for a rich culture to grow, and a strong culture is key to the long term stability of a city’s growth and economy. It only took one building in Bilbao, Spain, the Guggenheim museum, to establish an entirely new standard for the city that highlighted its best qualities and allowed for the integration of contemporary design. In London it was a set of establishments called the Georgian Squares that turned into ideal cultural hubs for attracting tourism, and aided London’s economy to reaching its financial success to date. In Chicago, a massive fire that destroyed the city forced the architects and engineers to come up with something that would change the game; the ‘1st generation’ skyscraper compounded their economy, bringing an entirely new structural system that not only eliminated high flammability index but also allowed cities around the world to ‘build up.’ It is clear that a city in peril has a large desire for change, it is something that has and will continue to be evident on this Earth. Pairing this urgency and hunger for something better with the lead architect and engineers of the day equates to the development of revolutionary architecture tactics that will continue to lead cities to greatness.
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