Segregation in Perpetuity

A recent episode of This American Life addressed the perpetual nature of housing segregation in America. In particular, the episode focused on the failure of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to effectively desegregate neighborhoods, describing how George Romney's efforts - as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development - to enforce the Fair Housing Act were shut down by President Richard Nixon. Romney did not consider housing segregation a minor issue, calling it "the greatest crisis in our nation's history." In the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Riots, Romney felt that the inequality created by housing segregation was one reason for the unrest that spun into violence, saying:

"We must have open housing on a statewide basis. Zoning that creates either large-scale economic or racial segregation should be eliminated. We must provide low cost private housing through nonprofit organizations in all parts of the metropolitan area and throughout the state."

Detroit 1967 - via Wayne State University

In short summary, Romney's enforcement of the Fair Housing Act brought Nixon's administration unwanted attention and criticism from important constituents and Romney was eventually forced out. Nixon then ordered a narrow reading of the law, acknowledging in private letters that as a result, "by taking this view, the schools will still be segregated and neighborhoods will still be segregated." Which brings us where we are today:  still discussing significant problems with education and housing segregation and failing to enact viable solutions.

Furthermore, a recent article in the Washington Post addresses the growing economic segregation in our neighborhoods, questioning the consequences of such a trend: decreasing upward mobility, an unsympathetic wealthy class, and a resentful lower class. It is certainly plausible that such trends in economic segregation - combined with a shrinking middle class and an increasing level of poverty - will lead to future riots on American streets on the scale of Detroit 1967, compared to which the OWS protests were rather cordial. The prevailing divisive political climate will prevent future legislation to address consequences that arise from current trends.

Conclusion via question: if diversity is valued as an asset in academic, business and political spheres, why is it devalued - or at least ignored - when it comes to housing?

Downtown Middle-income Housing

While participating in the HKS Design Fellowship last weekend, our design team addressed the need for middle-income housing in downtown Dallas. This need was specifically recognized in the Dallas 360 Master Plan. Like most automotive based cities that are now going through a sort of downtown Renaissance, downtown Dallas is lacking in both middle-income housing and amenities (i.e. schools, grocery stores, etc.) Emerging downtown cities are depending on a significant middle-class demographic to add to the social and economic vibrancy of the city. But as developers continue to pursue the more lucrative deals found in low-income housing tax credits or luxury residences, cities have found that growing a downtown middle-class is a difficult and complex task . Downtown land values typically price out the middle-class. These families may want to live downtown, but when considering the negatives of cost, poor schools, and residence size, they often turn to the suburbs. This demographic has often been criticized for their suburbanization and automotive dependency; yet, it is clear that automotive-based urban design strategies and economics have compelled this demographic toward the suburbs rather than it simply being a matter of preference. The Dallas plan addresses the problem this way:  "Without some form of subsidy, it frequently is infeasible to build new housing units in Downtown, and in many cases to rehabilitate older buildings, that then are sold or rented to middle-income households. To fill in the market gap, accelerate the area's revitalization, and support the housing needs of Downtown businesses, the City of Dallas should identify sources of funding to subsidize construction of units for middle-income households..." The 360 plan recognizes that even if subsidies for middle-income housing were provided, this would still only yield 25% of housing for middle-income households (see graph below). This, however, is better than "recent production of housing in Downtown, which has skewed toward the upper income levels." The recommended percentage of future downtown housing accounts only for new construction, and not for existing units that "may become more affordable to middle-income households as the units age."
Dallas 360 Master Plan, p. 76

The plan goes on to prescribe generic programming and construction recommendations to reduce construction costs and make this type of subsidized housing more feasible. Nonetheless, it is clear that Dallas, as well as other cities, are willing to make a bet that middle-class suburbanization is more about economics than the lifestyle suburbs offer. Their argument is that people will readily sacrifice residence size and parking availability for the attributes offered by downtown living. This leaves us with one important question: will the bet pay off?

Financial Architecture of Affordable Median New Home Prices

Over the past few years we have heard a lot about home values. We have heard that millions of Americans are underwater - they owe more than their home is worth - and there are thousands of sound bites from politicians, promoting policies that they feel will best address the housing crisis. It seems that almost everybody wants home values to go back up - or at least stop falling. It would definitely lift a burden from the shoulders of many struggling families. But, almost simultaneously, we were hearing another oft-repeated phrase, and this phrase raised a lot of questions in our minds about the home value problem. The phrase, and you will most likely recognize it, is this: real value wages have remained mostly static over the last 30 years. That is to say, if you take inflation into account, people are not making more money than they were 30 years ago. So, obviously, the question is this: if people are not making any more money, how can they afford to buy homes that are increasing in value? So, we took to the census, looked at some income numbers and some housing numbers, put them into a spreadsheet and came up with the following:

The point is this: if wages remain stagnant, how can we expect our home values to do anything but remain stagnant? If we want to treat our home as a growth investment, how can we expect our children to be able to purchase homes for their families? Certainly there will be real estate "hot spots" where supply cannot meet demand, and therefore values increase proportionately. But if you take a look at the entire housing picture, these "hot spots" are a separate and almost unrelated circumstance when the primary concern is the median income homeowner. When the median home value to median household income ratio becomes too large (we guess somewhere between 4.5 and 5), people simply cannot afford homes. (If you couple this with other family budget items that have grown faster than inflation, i.e. health insurance, the picture gets worse.) During the housing bubble mortgage lenders made credit too easy in order to maintain the illusion of affordability. The collapse of inflated housing prices is likely the most frustrating burden that the economic downturn has placed on the middle class.

So, what does this have to do with architecture? The most significant and interesting residential architecture is a home that is personalized to the home owner(s). As architects, we want people to recognize the impact their space has on them. We want people to realize the value quality architectural design can bring into their lives. Even when purchasing an existing home, we encourage people to take charge of their space, remodel it, make it fit them. In the face of stagnant wages and increasing home values, it is difficult not to become cynical about architecture for the middle class - the mediocrity we strive to elevate. Under increasing financial pressure, we realize that people will have less and less means and appetite for architecture. In the face of this, we must concede that in most circumstances, quality architectural design is a luxury, not a necessity. And when you consider your profession to be so important in so many ways, that's a tough realization.

MVRDV designs a public relations nightmare

In probably the most salient example of the divide between the architectural profession and the general public, MVRDV had it's public reputation skewered last week when it's proposed design for two towers in the Yongsan business district of South Korea was compared to the destruction of the World Trade Center:

Quite possibly the most disheartening part of this debacle is that MVRDV is widely considered to be among the architectural profession's most research-oriented and most intelligent design firms. There is practically no positive spin for MVRDV; either they intentionally designed their Cloud towers after the Twin Towers and completely miscalculated the public reaction, or (as they claim) they never noticed the relation and appear either negligent or blind. Either way, they do not come off as intelligent designers. Which is a shame, because they have a large body of work which says otherwise. Even the cloud rendering that MVRDV presented as their inspiration looks eerily reminiscent of the Twin Towers under attack, which begs the question: How did they not see it? How is it that the general public instantly recognizes the relationship, but in 3 months of design they do not? A scan through argumentative comments on MVRDV's facebook page further illustrates the disconnect between designers and the general public. One would hope their reputation is not permanently damaged, although one also wonders, will they continue with the proposed design?

Steve Luoni and the Environmental Response

Steve Luoni is the director of the Community Design Center at the University of Arkansas, an integrated research and design outreach center affiliated with the Fay Jones School of Architecture. The CDC is a unique organization that provides design and planning services, like a traditional design firm, but in an educational environment. The CDC is staffed by design professionals, educators, and students alike; a collaborative environment where research ideas can be integrated into practice, and students learn to produce work for actual clients.

Several weeks ago, Steve Luoni gave a lecture at the University of Utah, focusing on 4 of the CDC's research/work areas: watershed urbanism, low impact neighborhood development, street ecologies, and transit oriented development. Each of the projects he showed have the characteristic of being highly integrated with the work of the CDC's ecological engineers. He explained that most local codes make their design solutions illegal, and therefore the most challenging part of their projects is working with the right people (code officials, fire chiefs, etc.) to have the code adjusted, changed, or adapted to their design.

Probably the most refreshing part of Luoni's presentation was how truly "outside the box" it was. "Outside the box" probably ranks high on the list of overused phrases, nonetheless it is disappointing to attend lectures by architects and designers who often profess a unique approach, but whose work is remarkably similar. Sure, one form is not like the other, but the results are frequently congruent. The CDC integrates research and collaboration with other professionals (especially engineers) in a way that other firms, developers, and designers ought to admire and replicate.

Lastly, Luoni brought up 2 subjects beyond the typical scope of design solutions that were rather apposite. We should mention that the additional commentary is our own, and may not coincide with Luoni's opinions:

1.) "We don't villainize suburban development" - the design world is chalk full of interrogations of  and accusations against suburban development without addressing the large elephant in the room: that a large portion of the population is supporting suburban development through their economic behavior. It seems the current strategy of opponents of suburban development is to make living in the suburbs "uncool" or even a stigma. However, when it comes to finances, people are often ready and willing to bear a stigma or be uncool. Luoni's method is to be cognizant of the "real costs," and to address the reasons people do not want to live in urban environments. In short, there is a need to solve the problems of the alternative, not just villainize suburban development and hope people will ignore those problems and shun the suburbs.

2.) Luoni drew analogies between the medical profession and architectural profession, explaining that the medical profession did not gain respect from the general public until it legitimately solved health problems of the general public (see bloodletting vs. vaccination), thus intimating that perhaps the architectural profession might get more respect from the general public if it too was able to legitimately solve design problems of the general public. It very well may be true that the design profession has found viable solutions, but these solutions are typically limited. The irony, perhaps, is that the general public does not have enough trust in the profession to grant them the full scope of their solutions. As we read between the lines, we see significant meaning in the CDC's ability to work collaboratively with engineers and apply their own research. The medical profession was only able to solve problems when it better understood the science behind their discipline and applied what it learned in research. Sometimes, it seems that the architectural profession seems woefully unscientific, and it's research more voodoo than science. But that is a topic for another post...
Watershed urbanism

Low impact neighborhood development

Street ecologies

Transit oriented development

Where is the Critic?

Historically, the general public has been connected to architectural design through one primary venue: the general media. This raises the question: where is the architectural critic? More specifically, where is the infamous critic Ellsworth Toohey of Ayn Rand's the Fountainhead, who was able to wield almost complete control over the architectural world by shaping public opinion? Ayn Rand's fictional public seemed desperately invested in architecture. So, why is it that so many metropolitan newspapers do not have an architecture critic? Or at least a regular architectural critique of recently constructed (or designed) buildings? This is perhaps one of those chicken or egg questions: is the general public not interested in reading about architecture - hence, no architecture critic - or has the lack of an architecture critic resulted in a general public that is not interested in architecture? Obviously it is difficult to have one without the other. Though, in our present age of "opinionation" it seems that not only does every pundit have an opinion, but that people listen to them, and therefore they seem to be multiplying. It doesn't seem that it would be very difficult to hire a professor from the closest school of architecture to write a weekly - or bimonthly - column on architecture.

Regardless, we live in a city that seems rather disinterested in architecture - and not due to a lack of new construction. The city, after all, seems highly interested in development, and there is plenty of construction both ending and beginning in spite of the recent recession. But discussion of all this building in the general media is limited to the following essential facts: user, purpose, square footage, funding/cost, architect, contractor. Newspapers all over the country seem to follow this formula, and architectural critique seems to be found only in the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. At the Yale School of Architecture Paul Goldberger commented on writing about architecture, "If it didn’t sound hopelessly pompous, I would say that the purpose of criticism in the general media is to create a better educated, more critically aware, more visually literate constituency for architecture, and thus, presumably, increase society’s demand for good design."

It is interesting that the aforementioned Toohey said, "Don't set out to raze all shrines—you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity, and the shrines are razed." Our interest in mediocrity is not to enshrine it, and our intention is obviously not to raze the spectacular. Our interest in mediocrity is to elevate it. We are interested in what has made so much of our architecture mediocre, and how it can be improved. It appears that one solution is somewhere between an architecture critic and an interested general public.
1st edition, the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Mediocity (mē-dē-'ȯ-sə-tē)

Mediocity (or mee-dee-AH-si-tee) is created from an interest in how the general public interacts with, and engages, architecture and urban design. We operate this blog on the notion that not everything interesting has to be spectacular; and that we even find mediocrity, at times, more interesting than the spectacular. We are interested in how the middle-class consumes architecture. We are interested in how the general media represents architecture and urbanism to the general public. We are interested in the general public's apparent simultaneous interest and disinterest in architecture and urban design. We sense a disconnect between the architectural community and the general public and are not certain if we should be dismayed or if we should expect it. In this age of specialization, the general public seems disconnected from almost every profession. Yet the general public interacts with architecture and urban design on a daily basis, and although it may not have a cognitive impact on an individual's life, it has an impact nonetheless.

So the issues on which this blog will focus or address are:

  1. The relationship between architecture and urban design, and the general public - the intent: to gauge public involvement and interest in architecture and urban design, and the goal: to promote public awareness (think cognitive) of the impact of architecture and urban design.
  2. To promote sustainable urbanism - not just through a critique of urban sprawl, but by addressing both the positive and negative aspects of urban living, thereby searching for and advocating measures for improvement.

Nevada AerialAs evident, image from Google