Those 'Luxury' Condos Look A Little Drab

Originally published on October 16, 2017 2:26 pm

In cities like Seattle, Boston, Denver and Charlotte, new “luxury” condos and apartment buildings are going up to meet demand for new housing. But many of these buildings look like simple, plain boxes.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks with architecture critic and author Sarah Williams Goldhagen (@SarahWGoldhagen) about what makes these buildings “poor,” “boring” architecture, and how monotonous architecture actually negatively affects us.

Interview Highlights

On why there are so many of these kinds of buildings being built

“There are a lot of different reasons for it. If you separate it out into supply and demand, one is that that’s what’s being built, so that’s what’s cheap to build, because the wheels are greased for that kind of architecture. Buy in bulk. That’s what the market has been giving and so it’s easy to give that. The second reason is that there’s a general point of view, both among real estate developers, who are building these buildings, and among clients who are buying these buildings, that good design … is an unaffordable luxury. And we know two things now: one, it’s not unaffordable. It costs just as much to build a well-designed building as a poorly designed building. And neither is it a luxury because the research is clearly showing that people actually respond very poorly to those bad buildings.

“Someone did a study walking along buildings that was like a poor, undifferentiated surface. It was actually the side of a shopping mall. People’s heart rates went up, their cortisol levels shot up. It makes you anxious to be in enervating, boring, repetitive environments, and these projects are being built at such a large scale that they form the urban fabric that people in and it’s not good for them.”

On how long these buildings will last and what styles have aged well

“There’s style and then there’s craftsmanship, and some stylistic moments were more felicitous than others. There’s no question about that. I mean, you know, those New York 1950s and ’60s white, enameled, tiled, brick apartments on the Upper East Side were not a good stylistic decision. … People need what they experience to speak to them, to pull them in, draw them in, cognitively. We actually know that the way that most people respond to environments is not conscious, and yet, the environments are having very profound effects on us.

“So the environments that, you know, these buildings that we walk by — a Deco building or an Upper East Side white enamel tile brick apartment building — can draw you in, can engage you emotionally, can affect your emotional states, I mean this is all research-based stuff. The science is very clear. But the research has not seeped out into the general public, and that’s one of the things I wanted to say is that there are a lot of other reasons why these buildings are so bad. Building codes perpetuate lack of innovation. Policymakers, pretty much across the board, don’t value design. They don’t recognize the public health dimensions of good design. And they’re really profound.”

On improvements to design in the U.S.

“Some good things are being done. The residential housing stock in the United States, overall, is a little bit better — the new residential housing stock is better than it was 30 years ago. It’s partly because some of these design principles have begun to be recognized, one. Two, sustainability issues, so people are trying to get green in wherever they can, even just symbolically. Three, new technologies are making it cheaper to combine materials in more complex ways and use better materials than was possible 30 years ago. And four, stylistic preferences have changed so that large, simple, repetitive patterns are now out of fashion, as they probably, as they should be. I mean, there’s a place for them, but, as a fabric building in residential stuff it’s a bad idea.”

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