Comment of the Day: In Defense of the Same Old-Looking Stuff

COMMENT OF THE DAY: IN DEFENSE OF THE SAME OLD-LOOKING STUFF “I hate to say it, but there’s a lot going for inoffensive tried-and-true faux-historical designs built from readily available, durable, and inexpensive materials by contractors that have done dozens of projects before, just like it. Spectacular architecture necessarily entails the risk of spectacular failure.” [TheNiche, commenting on Apartments Planned for Montrose Fiesta Site Will Go Tall Mediterranean]

10 Comment

  • That comment should go in the CVB’s marketing materials. “Welcome to Houston. You may be asking yourself, ‘Why are there so many crappy buildings here?’ But, dear visitor, there is a reason: We’re afraid to build better ones!”

  • Pretty much, yeah. I’m not trying to defend forgettable architecture; I’m only explaining it.

  • Whew, hate to get into this religious argument, but isn’t what you describe essentially vernacular architecture? Jim, are you saying vernacular architecture is by definition crappy? Is that because what you want is every building to be a new idea?

  • but just think, if every building in houston was consensus-defined as “pleasant looking”, we’d still have to bemoan the fact that we’re all driving ugly cars cuz the roads are turning to sh#@ and it’d be even more noticeable that everyone walks around dressed like a sloppy adolescent outside of work.

    lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

  • TheNiche Wrote: “Spectacular architecture necessarily entails the risk of spectacular failure.”

    That might be true but I have to try and clear up an insidious misconception here.

    First of all, I don’t think anyone who is a proponent of progressive contemporary architecture is pushing for a new Falling Water or Zaha Hadid designed avant-guard experiment. It is an extremely unfortunate and yet pervasive fallacy to equate contemporary, non-kitschy architecture with splashy, risky design and poor quality construction done with non-durable materials. There are plenty of examples of understated, elegant, and yes, conventionally constructed and well-built modern design here in Houston. They include local firms such as Lake|Flato (designer of the new HEB) or Kirksey.

    It’s silly to lump all of modernism together, but depending on your definition of it, Modernism in one form or another has been extensively practiced all over the world ever since the Bauhaus school attempted to develop a formal pedagogy for it in the 1920’s. I *think* over 100 years and x-number of buildings later, we’ve figured out how to build it without leaks.

    Your second false assumption is that Marvy Finger builds in the Faux-traditional style because it’s “tried-and-true” or “inexpensive.” Ok, well maybe if you go faux all the way (as in crappy plaster cast stone facades) then it would be cheaper. But either way, I’d wager that Finger, who didn’t get to where he is by being losing money, is pitching his products at a very specific market segment. Namely, wealthy people and those with aspirations of even more wealth. In the United States it seems that modern architecture is associated with public buildings and some kind of suspicious, alien, and vaguely socialist agenda. Who wants their family, friends, or boss to think that they’re weird or some kind of communist? Hence, the best way to have your dwelling embody your conservative social stance and financial aspirations (or status) is to live in a nice replica of a Tuscan Pallazo or French chateau. Of course, this is absurd and impossible to pull off when you try to cram all the programming and functions of a multi-family apartment or condo building into it, so you usually end up with some kind of a hideous Frankenstein behemoth. Witness any Randall Davis project as an example. It’s alive… ALIVE!!!!

  • David: No, I wasn’t saying anything about vernacular architecture; I was just riffing on the idea of “Let’s not put much thought into new architecture because we might fail.” Every building needn’t be a new idea, but generally speaking, I think Houston architecture has been short on new ideas for a while. Of course, that’s just one person’s opinion — but I’m glad Houston wasn’t afraid to try spectacular things in the past. Our skyline would be a lot less interesting if we had been.

  • Go stucco…

  • @ Everyone: To clarify, experimental or institutional architecture is beyond the scope of my commentary. This being a real estate blog, I define the success or failure of architecture by its effect to the bottom line of a financial statement.

    @ JL: Regarding your first criticism, that I am perceiving good architecture as inherently substandard, my comment praised typical building materials for a set of qualities that most developers and contractors understand and are comfortable with. Some developers are more architecturally sophisticated and capable, but most are not; likewise, some architects are financially capable enough to be developers, but most are not.

    I’m not clear what your second point was. I wouldn’t consider anything that Marvy Finger has ever built to be “spectacular” architecture. Sure, he put a bit more money into his highrises to cater to a high-end market segment; but he’s also been building apartments for a long time, and most of them are nice enough but very forgettable in the grand scheme of things. Randall Davis, by comparison, revels in spectacle. I (and many others) tend to agree with you that the mish mash of styles and functions that he puts together can be grotesque, however…he learned a long time ago not to build too many units in a single project. He caters to an extremely narrow demographic which varies from one project to the next, and he has pulled off some spectacular successes over the years. He’s also had projects that went belly-up.

    I kind of feel like you’re suggesting or advocating for more projects like the new Montrose HEB or One Park Place. Such structures are easy on the eyes, but I don’t tend to think of them as anything special. They’re the consequence of a developer attempting to accomodate an affluent market segment with something that is very nice, yet still completely and totally inoffensive with plenty of resale value…not unlike like a top-of-the-line decked-out Lexus.

    (And I know that architect types hate to hear this, but while your creations may not be mass produced, y’all as design professionals are. Or at least, that’s how most developers see it. But not for your designs, they would’ve been somebody else’s designs…with the same budget. If the developer intends as spectacle, the developer will buy a spectacle.)

  • @ TheNiche: Thanks for the thinking and context behind your original comment.

    I agree that not all contractors or developers are equipped to execute modern design. But maybe that’s because there’s not as much demand for it. And maybe there’s less demand because the consumers out there think of contemporary design as risky or prefer “faux fill-in-the-blank” for aspirational social climbing purposes or some other reason. I’m a firm believer in the free market and I think that the built environment that we see here in Houston is a result of market forces driven by the consumer, which is just fine; but that goes back to my original point that misconceptions by consumers (i.e. all of us) about good contemporary design prevents it from being more widely accepted and built.

    If I could take the liberty of defining good contemporary design, it would have less to do with style and appearance than with how it enhances the way we live. Since we spend most of our lives inside buildings, the light we receive, the air we breath, the way we move through a space, and whether it makes it easy or difficult to do our jobs at work or chores around the house are all affected by design. Given all the innovations in architectural design and building technology over the past 100 years, and knowing how the buildings we live in affect our daily lives, it’s a shame that good design doesn’t have more of a presence in the public consciousness.

    Unfortunately, most of the time it’s all about status and projecting a specific image (even if it may be a neutral one) that home buyers look for. I just wish that more people know they have choices and realize what they are giving up in return for that McMansion with a coveted stucco turret on the facade (or the high-rise equivalent) but big, empty, and poorly laid out rooms on the inside.

    If developers were required by the market (i.e. consumers) to compete more on the basis of good fundamental design rather than simply who is slapping on the shiniest accouterments for conveying social status, then I think we would have better quality houses, buildings, and built environment. And that would be better for all of us, even those who choose to live in McMansions.

    BTW, your observation about how developers view architects in general is probably correct. Every architect I know (including my former self as I am a recovering architect) probably thinks, to some degree, that they are the center of the universe and a one-of-a-kind gift to humanity. Which is actually very helpful if you are to have the conviction and vision to create amazing designs. But the sad unfortunate fact is that most architects will never be the next Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry. How developers feel can be summed up by what an old investor in Dallas remarked to me once when I asked him about taking on architects as equity partners (young children can stop reading now), “… you can sleep with an architect but that doesn’t mean you ever have to marry one!”

  • Yes…cheap-money housing for cheap-money people. There’s no sense in putting lipstick on a pig — or should i say, a fancy coat of paint on the pig sty.