What we build can be metaphoric—often intentionally, sometimes subliminally. But architecture is seldom the intentional commentary of architects, crafting symbolism; more often it is a direct reflection of its time and the culture that made it.
The 20th century was marked by a flowering of architectonic personalization.
The fully formed realities of midcentury Manhattan included Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Philip Johnson’s Chippendale skyscraper, and the Citicorp Building, among many others. These buildings were proud in their identities, dominating their immediate places. They were singularities, and a reflection of the personae—and perhaps the hubris—of the architects and developers involved: Philip Johnson, Harry Hemsley, John D. Rockefeller.
Our time has seen the blanding down of the built environment, the Amazonization of architecture.
A visitor to that same Manhattan now sees square, blunt, anonymous needle towers, scores of them celebrating no architect, no builder, no image. Like the antiseptic, profit-based Amazon system of need-response, available profit prompts unthinking action: stacking space equals money. They spread across the cityscape and up to the limits of construction, with zero personality, very few full-time tenants, no meaning beyond maximizing return, no aesthetic beyond the greed of the often anonymous, even nefarious, wealth. Their anonymity and banality, pandering to no higher goal than profit, reminds me of how the internet has evolved.
It’s easy to bash these rude responses that maximize the value of extremely expensive land. The sight of ungainly, brain-dead glass stalagmites reaching up to nothing but vainglory, facing nothing but each other, feels dystopian. Hamilton Nolan in The Guardian calls it an “ultra-capitalist … billionaire’s fantasy.” John Massengale has noted that pencil towers give New York City residents the finger.
What we build is a mirror of what we value.
For a century, homes were the projection of architecture’s future: Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie wonders expressed an American vision of linear cultural expansion; Corbusier’s abstract art pieces manifested abstract aesthetic ideas into buildings; Venturi Scott Brown’s assemblage of pieces of architectural expression saw current culture as a springboard of creativity, rather than a disappointing result of it. As Venturi said, “In the 1960s the use of history as allusion was exciting and new. History had been called ‘bunk’ by Goring and ‘irrelevant’ by Modernists whose slogan was ‘We’re starting again!’ We were not starting again, we were evolving. But because Modernism had become an old revolution, we were revolutionary in being evolutionary.”
Homes were once laboratories of human vision.
Through the internet, the 21st century has seen the universalization of taste. No leaders are needed; we’re simply following a common satisfaction of need, rather than using buildings to express hope and progress beyond that simple satisfaction. Now, homes are the manifestation of systems, products, images, where Houzz models our impulse-purchase present with no thought of our values.
This world does not need the complication of architects who question priorities, or just think beyond simply tack-welding an infinite number of grab-n-go features offered on every screen. These knee-jerk “add-to-your-cart” buildings are just a way to collect what the internet affords: buildings made of buzzwords tacked onto layers of clickable features. Some of these tack-ons are popularized by using the immediacy of the climate crisis: sustainability, Net Zero, density, energy creation— all necessary realities reduced here to marketing ploys. The wrapping paper becomes the gift, because the homeowner is in full empowerment. No designer is needed, creating the Amazon Aesthetic.
Housing is no longer conceived as a means of building community.
The 20th century saw huge efforts to reform communities. The traditional model of community organization—in which street-facing houses were torn down and parks were placed between separated blocks of dense multifamily housing—began to change the urban landscape. One type of urban space tried to create another. The endless blocks of federally subsidized housing remade whole neighborhoods in cities (Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Alphabet City in New York), and all expressed the government desire to make safe, affordable places to live in the cities that were changing to accept the massive cultural migrations that occurred after World War II. This approach largely failed, but subsequent revisions have humanized many of these experiments.
These days, the bulk of newly built housing is profit-based, maximizing the site area to create the greatest number of units to sell. The pushed-to-bursting site design has ended community space as a criterion for housing creation. Beyond killing public amenity, the stick-frame-over-podium boxes of today are just the manifestation of the zipless culture of the antiseptically purchased life: clean, shiny, immediate, and a bit bland, a direct metaphor for the internet-based life.
No architect or developer thinks of their world as being symbolic of the moment, but, in truth, everything we do manifests the moment in the culture when we happen to be alive. Architects desperately want to be innovative, to be beacons of the future. But architecture as a mirror of our values is the essence of how buildings are designed. Either patrons express their values in the buildings they create, or cultures create buildings that reflect that culture’s values. In the end, what we build is who we are.
Featured image: Billionaire’s Row, New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.