Construction lives on a bizarre rollercoaster. In 2006, homebuilding starts approached 3 million units per year, and then they plunged to about 300,000 units by 2009. Such manic booms and hopeless busts are virtually unprecedented in any other industry. If the automobile industry or agriculture or electronics had a 90% rise or drop in sales every few years, job security in those fields would not exist.
Every architect who is older than 40 knows that the 10-year construction lull after 2008 was an oddity, and now the last two years of the irrational, Covid-induced construction boom is coming to an end, as interest rates approach 8%. Rather than Groundhog Day resignation, maybe “here we go again” can become a moment of understanding.
After nearly half a century of designing through five booms and five busts, I know that the impact of these economic convulsions are particularly acute in construction, because what architects create is either built or does not exist. Architects are distracted by the task at hand. More work in a boom feels like a personal reward, and that overload of opportunity can often become a burden, albeit a paradoxical one: The lack of work during busts makes each job more precious, with each project becoming a focal presence in an office.
Architects never lead our culture; we reflect it in our work. Whether the culture is in an economic meltdown or an ecstatic reverie, our work is impacted. Beautiful and hideous buildings are constructed every year, regardless. Unlike in finance or product development, the explosion of architectural outcomes in a boom produces more hideousness that we must live with long after the boom fades.
Truly bad buildings will always be inflicted on our culture when there is profit to be made. And yet … the worst economic bust in American history was the Great Depression, but Rockefeller Center was conceived and built in a thoughtful, expressive urban place by Raymond Hood, when very little else was being built. That seminal project sought to reinvent Midtown Manhattan, a noble motivation. Unfortunately, the corporate towers that stand to the east and south along Sixth Avenue are artless shafts created during the post–World War II booms, when the motivation was corporate identity and profit.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater was built at the height of the Great Depression, in 1936: Its intricate intensity was extremely hard to build, not to mention costly, but made possible in part by the depressed costs of a bad market (not unlike Rockefeller Center). Completed in 1980, Thorncrown Chapel by E. Fay Jones was a labor of love built in the hard times of the period, with a long, hard funding cycle. Other Jones chapels followed in the booms that followed; they cost more, but they never caught the magic of the recession-born Thorncrown beauty.
During booms, the act of building is a mechanism not only for profit, but for fulfilling the promises of any go-go period’s irrational exuberance. Economic Darwinism may have a role in aesthetics. If the number of designers remains constant and the number of projects reduces (often disastrously so), and better designers continue to work, while those who simply fill a need and make buildings that are affordable and meet code are less desirable, with better architects designing more of what gets built, there are better results.
Through it all, established firms have work, as they sustain value due to their history, but fees suffer as competition makes for desperation between those seeking commissions. But the meaning of what architects do reflects our culture’s values. In a bust, the risk is greater for those who build, and greater care is taken to maximize the results of what is built, for all concerned. Builders need work, too, and have more time to consider how buildings are constructed, enhancing the value, short and long term.
Conversely, in a boom, value is extended to action, when money (cheaper when interest rates are low) is often thrown at problems, as cost is less important than manifesting the urgency of boom-time optimism. Making anything better usually takes more time than instant gratification, so those projects weathering the review and thought of a bust’s prevailing fear often sustain their value beyond the moment.
The gratitude of all parties to the privilege of building wanes in booms (they’re too busy), but has real currency in a bust. For builders and architects, pride in creation during busts has more meaning than pride in profit.
These past few years saw the collapse of construction during the lockdown and then an explosion of activity thereafter. This crazy whipsaw came after a decade-long hangover caused by the Great Recession. And yet few lessons appear to have been learned. When architects assume they deserve a boom and believe it’s the just state of a culture finally recognizing our value, we forget that faith in us is a gift, not an entitlement. When we do not have to listen to the things that we cannot control, ugly buildings happen. These boom/bust mood swings reveal the motivations of many designers. Object obsession is magnified when those objects are seen as merely vehicles for profit.
Today, there are endless posts of things built in this pandemic boom, trumpeting overblown projects and values that only happen in such times. The coming bust will be the ghost response to all of the internet exultation. The reckoning we’re beginning to experience is not simply an economic comeuppance. It will expose the shallow rewards of impulse purchasing. As with every other building boom, these last two years have cooked up fast food architecture that does not nourish.
I truly look forward to the next bust.
Featured images via Shutterstock.