Architecture’s Style Wars

The Folly of the U.K.’s New Architectural Style Wars

The U.K.’s new housing czar Sir Roger Scruton thinks traditional architecture can foil NIMBYs. But architecture didn’t cause Britain’s housing crisis.  

CityLab, Nov. 30, 2018

Earlier this month, the U.K.’s Conservative government launched a new commission on architecture called “Building Better, Building Beautiful.” Announced by Secretary for Housing and Communities James Brokenshire (yes, his real name), the group is meant to draft guidelines to “tackle the challenge of poor quality design and [construction]” in real-estate projects so that they earn “popular consent.” The idea is that if the outward look of new development is more to people’s liking, they will be less inclined to turn NIMBY and oppose it.

The birth of yet another “quango,” as such paper-pushing bodies are known in the U.K., might have gone unnoticed as the deadline for Brexit approaches. But one thing has provoked controversy: the appointment of conservative philosopher and author Sir Roger Scruton as the unpaid head of the commission.

Scruton is a well-known public intellectual in the U.K., who has written books on wine, music, and architecture as well as philosophy and makes regular appearances on the BBC. (He is also a favorite of the right-wing internet.) In the wake of the announcement, media outlets reported that he had previously called Islamophobia “a wholly imaginary enemy,” date rape and sexual harassment made-up, Hungarian Jews “part of … the Soros Empire,” and homosexuality “not normal”—the last in a 2007 article that argued against gay adoption. Labour members of Parliament then demanded that Prime Minister Teresa May remove him from his post. (She did not.)

Architects and architecture writers piled on with their own criticisms. One objected to the “narrow and predictable terms” in which Scruton, an arch-traditionalist, defines beauty. Another called the philosopher a “ludicrous curmudgeon.”

But there are bigger problems with Scruton and this commission than his personal preference for Georgian and Victorian architecture, or even the offense caused by his comments. (Scruton maintains his remark on Hungarian Jews was taken out of context.)

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Millennial Homebuyers

Millennials Are More Likely to Buy Their First Homes in Cities

New research finds that Millennials are 21 percent more likely to buy their first homes near city centers than Generation X.

CityLab, Nov. 15, 2018

If there’s a single question that has gnawed at urban economists and planners over the past few years, it’s this: Will Millennials’ well-known love of cities fade once they have kids and need space for double strollers and play kitchens, or is it a more lasting shift in how Americans will decide where to live? We’ve heard the argument that Millennials have “peaked” in cities and will eventually suburbanize from demographer Dowell Myers (cited by Conor Dougherty in the New York Times), and the counter-argument from City Observatory’s Joe Cortright and others. One researcher, Harvard’s Hyojung Lee, has tried to square the circle by arguing that Millennials are both urban and suburban.

Although it doesn’t put the debate to rest, a new paper shows that Millennials are at least continuing to tilt urban as they stop renting and become homeowners.

The paper, published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, looks at whether Millennial first-time homebuyers (defined as those born between 1980 and 2000) are more likely to buy homes near city centers than their counterparts in Generation X. Authors Elora Raymond of Clemson University, Jessica Dill of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and Yongsung Lee of Georgia Institute of Technology used a logistic regression model controlling for age and generation; they also controlled for income, credit score, car ownership, mortgage size, mortgage payment, and student-debt level. The upshot: The odds of Millennials buying near city centers are 21 percent higher than for Generation X.

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Designing the ‘Memory Town’

Why a ‘Memory Town’ Is Coming to Your Local Strip Mall

Weeks after opening near San Diego, a model town for treating dementia is set to be replicated around the U.S.

CityLab, Sept. 17, 2018

On August 13, a brand-new town in Southern California welcomed its first residents. They trickled through the doors of a generic beige warehouse on a light-industrial stretch of Main Street in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb. Then they emerged in Town Square®—a 9,000-square-foot working replica of a 1950s downtown, built and operated by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. Unlike the businesses around it hawking restaurant supplies and tires, Town Square trades in an intangible good: memories.

The imitation town (which I wrote about previously in The Atlantic) is the biggest U.S. investment so far in what eldercare specialists call reminiscence therapy. In reminiscence therapy, caregivers encourage people with dementia and age-related cognitive impairments to talk about past events and their own life experiences, often aided by old photos, music, and other prompts that stimulate memories. Studies have shown that reminiscence therapy has positive effects on the mood, cognition, and communication level of dementia patients.

Our strongest, most enduring memories tend to be the those formed in adolescence and early adulthood, from roughly the ages of 10 to 30. Reminiscence therapy targets this age range, and for those Silent Generation members now in their 70s and 80s, that means the 1950s. (A person who is 80 in 2018 would have been 12 in 1950.) So the design of Town Square is intended to evoke the years between 1953 and 1961. It’s decked out with touches like a rotary phones, a 1959 Ford Thunderbird, a classic jukebox, portraits of period Hollywood stars, and vintage books and magazines. As the years go by, these will be replaced by more recent, period-appropriate prompts.

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Disrupting Construction

Can Silicon Valley Disrupt How We Build?

Flush with venture capital, the startup Katerra wants to revolutionize the construction industry. But as history shows, it’s harder than it looks.

CityLab, June 25, 2018

From the end of the Second World War until a few years ago, when it cooled off, productivity surged across the U.S. economy, giving rise to what’s often called the “productivity miracle.” From manufacturing to agriculture to retail, industry after industry became cheaper, faster, more mechanized, and more efficient.

But the same can’t be said of construction. Productivity in construction has not only not risen, it’s actually lower now than it was in 1968.

The way that most large buildings get built hasn’t changed much from 50 years ago. It goes by a deceptively straightforward name, “design-bid-build.” First, a developer or owner hires an architect, who comes up with a rough design. To flesh this out, the architect brings in consultants such as engineers and landscape architects, and sometimes niche consultants like food-service specialists.

When the design is finished, the owner puts it out for bids from general contractors, and hires one of them—often the lowest bidder—to supervise construction. The GC issues its own bids, and farms out the pieces of the project (for example, the HVAC system and the concrete work) to subcontractors. It’s not uncommon for the subcontractors to bid out work, as well, hiring sub-subcontractors. Then, when construction begins, the architect runs interference between the owner and the GC, trying to ensure that every detail is built correctly without blowing the owner’s budget. (Much of the time, the budget gets blown anyway.)

Not surprisingly, having so many cooks in the kitchen leads to misunderstandings and finger-pointing. Add volatile material prices and a skilled labor shortage, and you have, in the now-familiar parlance of Silicon Valley, an industry waiting to be disrupted.

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Secret Cities

Inside the Secret Cities That Created the Atomic Bomb

The Manhattan Project, the program that developed the first nuclear weapons during World War II, worked out of three purpose-built cities in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state. A new exhibition considers their design and legacy.

CityLab, May 10, 2018

Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at rapid speed beginning in 1942, the instant wartime cities of Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford/Richland, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico, revolved around military research. They held laboratories and sprawling industrial plants, but also residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and stores—war workers had personal lives and families, after all. At their peak in 1945, the three cities had a combined population of more than 125,000.

Their research facilities later morphed into national laboratories. But during the war, none of the cities appeared on any maps: They were the top-secret centers of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. military’s initiative to develop nuclear weapons before the Nazis got there first. The project achieved bitter success in August 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, instantly killing 150,000 people. Japan surrendered several days later, effectively ending the war, although historians still disagree about whether the use of nuclear weapons hastened the end.

Secret Cities, a new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., explores the architecture and urban planning of the Manhattan Project sites. Their design was driven by unique  considerations, such as including buffer zones for radiation leaks or explosions. But in many ways, they looked and felt a lot like other American towns of the mid-20th century.

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