Ever since I first saw it years ago, I’ve admired the Royal Crescent in Bath. Designed and built by John Wood the Younger in the eighteenth century, it is an early example of real estate development informed by smart architectural design. What is remarkable about this housing terrace is that behind the great Palladian façade, which consists of a giant order of Ionic columns atop a rusticated base, are thirty individual houses. It worked like this. Wood and his partner bought the greenfield (literally, it was an undeveloped field) site from the Garrard family, and subdivided it into 30 lots. The largest houses were to be at each end, and in the center. They sold the lots house by house, starting at one end and working their way to the other. When a lot was sold, Wood was responsible for the construction of the front façade, while the homeowner’s architect designed the house behind it according to his client’s instructions. From Wood’s perspective, it was pay as you go, as he minimized his financial exposure. The first lot was sold in 1767; it took 3 years to reach the midpoint of the crescent. Sales must have slowed down, since the project was not completed until 1775. Royal Crescent was the third Bath real estate development by Wood father and son; the first, started by John Wood the Elder, also an architect/developer, is Queen Square, the second is the Circus. Even then, developers recognized the value of a prestigious name.
There is some evidence that after five years the housing industry is showing signs of recovery. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is what form the recovery will take. It all depends on who you listen to. Those who believe that economic recovery will be spear-headed by consumer spending, see us going back to business as usual, that is, expanding the homeownership rate, and building as many large houses as the market will allow. New Urbanists, on the other hand, see the recession as a wake-up call and foresee a return to denser communities. Others see the increase in rental housing as a harbinger of a new Age of Tenants. Advocates of small houses see, well, more small houses. The problem is that most of this is wishful thinking; the truth is that we don’t know whether the housing recession was a correction or a game-changer. My own guess is that Americans’ appetite for large single-family houses on their own lots will not diminish. At the same time, the willingness to take risks will be curtailed, and I would expect that ex-urban housing, far from city centers will be less attractive, in lieu of infill housing in established communities. A lot will depend on how quickly the economy recovers. If high unemployment and low wages drag on for another five years, that will mean that many young families will have been tenants for a full decade—that’s long enough to break the homeownership habit, especially if you can’t afford it anyway. But that’s only a guess.
My friend Marc Appleton recently recommended a book by Royal Barry Wills. Wills (1895-1962), a Massachusetts native, was an architect (though his MIT degree was in engineering) who in the 1930s popularized the Cape Cod cottage and was a well-known residential designer. In 1938, LIFE magazine invited several architects to design modern and traditional houses; actual families would then chose one to build. Wills prevailed over no less than Frank Lloyd Wright. Wills’s book is the long out-of-print This Business of Architecture, originally published in 1941. It contains chapters titled “Stalking and Capturing of Clients” and “Design Within the Owner’s Budget.” The book is illustrated with Wills’s delightful drawings, and the tone is sensible, down-to-earth, and slightly sardonic. More than seventy years old, the book still rewards close reading and I would recommend it to any budding practitioner. Incidentally, Wills practiced what he preached; his firm, established in 1925, is still in business.
This is the definitely the year of the Chinese architect. Wang Shu wins the Pritzker Prize, the dissident Ai Weiwei’s takes part in the design with Herzog & de Meuron of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion (which Paul Goldberger tweeted is “thoughtful, pleasant, hardly anyone’s greatest moment”), and now the British magazine, Architectural Review, presents its 2012 House Award to John Lin, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and a principal in the firm Rural Urban Framework. The house is surrounded by a perforated brick screen. Behind the screen, four courtyards accommodate family activities, animals, and a biogas digester. The magazine press release calls it “a modern prototype of this traditional locus of rural life.” Well, it’s certainly uncompromisingly modern, but I worry that it looks so neat and designy. Trying to imagine it with muddy pigs.
A recent report (read it here) on the shelter situation in Haiti by Ian Davis of Lund University points out a troubling aspect of post-disaster reconstruction. Following the earthquake of 2010, more than 100,000 temporary shelters have been erected. These lightweight timber structures, called T-Shelters, are intended to be a transitional solution between tents, which are the usual emergency post-disaster shelter, and permanent houses. The problem, as Davis points out, is that the average cost of a T-Shelter ($13.80/square foot) is not much less than the average cost of a permanent house ($16.60/square foot). He suggests that the $500 million spent on T-shelters could have been better spent building permanent homes, especially as experience shows that “temporary” shelters tend to last a long time, becoming what he calls a “dismal legacy.” This is a problem as T-Shelters often occupy sites that are suited to permanent construction. Since the conventional building technology inHaiti is not timber (there are few trees) but reinforced concrete frames with cement block infill, the materials of the T-shelters are not easily transformed into permanent housing. Moreover, the imported technology is poorly suited to create the sort of skill-training that might generate future employment. Good intentions, not so good results.