Making it new

From affordable housing to beautiful highways and computer-monitor gargoyles, the Big Idea looks at architecture and design ideas to build a future around.

Published October 5, 2005 7:13PM (EDT)

1. Affordable housing: Cheap = Good
The notion that affordable housing can be good housing, architecturally innovative and inviting -- an idea that motivated many of the original Modernist architects -- is once again gaining traction. In Seattle, a prominent architecture firm, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, designed a series of graceful, butterfly-roof modern houses that were built by a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that mostly constructs undistinguished, vinyl-sided tract-style houses. In England, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott launched an architectural competition for houses that could be built for approximately $108,000. The winning structures will be manufactured by a government-funded program. The Boston Society of Architects is about to announce the winners of a new national competition for affordable housing. And design/build programs at architecture schools across the country, inspired by the success of Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio, have been turning out graduates eager to work on low-cost housing. A trend is reborn.

2. Love our infrastructure: Highways = Love
Photographer Catherine Opie was ahead of the curve a couple of years ago. The photographs she took of California highway overpasses made infrastructure into a thing of beauty. In Australia, highways are landscaped with on ramps, noise-prevention walls, and overpasses that are so beautiful, and beautifully minimalist, that they look like they should be on display at DIA. In the Netherlands, an entire country below sea level, billions have been invested in flood prevention infrastructure, and the work of the Rijkswaterstaat has been commemorated in a coffee table book. It's time for us to fall in love with our infrastructure and to invest in it so that we can better weather the next disaster.

3. New historic districts: Tract house subdivisions = Historic districts
Many postwar housing developments have now hit the age of 50, the threshold for historic status under most of this country's landmark laws. Builder Joseph Eichler's extraordinary neighborhoods in Los Angeles County are one prominent example, though there are many more such enclaves that may be designated historic in the near future. The National Trust for Historic Preservation held a meeting in Phoenix in March to come up with guidelines for assessing the historic value of 1950s housing developments, and the city of Phoenix -- largely built postwar -- is moving forward to landmark a number of its subdivisions. What this signals is that our definition, and appreciation, of the word "historic" is changing, and that we are at a pivotal moment in which we begin to see the second half of the 20th century recede into the past. In other words, it's finally begun to feel -- for better or worse -- like the 21st century.

4. Data art: Information = Decoration
Digitized information has been used as a form of ornamentation for years. A sleek new restaurant will now sport a row of video monitors at ceiling height more easily than it would crown molding. Mounted screens take the place of gargoyles on the outside of a building. Now we're getting more sophisticated at making information into decoration. At this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, designs that were almost rococo -- lamps made of intricately interwoven slices of wood veneer, for instance -- were made possible by computer-driven cutting devices. In perhaps the grandest use of data as art at the moment, the new Seattle Public Library features murals by artist George LeGrady that translate the flow of books in and out of the library into undulating patterns of light.

5. Can-do spirit: Asia = America circa 1950
While mega-developments are regarded with suspicion in this country and the big plans that actually get built tend to be suburban in nature, in Asia they are building brand new cities and districts from scratch almost routinely. The most striking example is Putrajaya, the new capital city of Malaysia, a weird combination of Le Corbusier, Albert Speer and Walt Disney, with more than a little Brasilia thrown in. South Korea is planning to build a new capital from scratch 90 miles south of Seoul and, meanwhile, is building other technologically oriented cities. Shanghai's Pudong is only one of dozens of massive development schemes in China. In Japan, they seem able and willing to build almost anything. Some of what goes up will be dazzling and some of it positively awful. (Dubai, now home to skyscrapers that are among the world's tallest, will soon be home to a development modestly named "The World," a cluster of some 300 private islands shaped like countries and clustered into continents.) Still, vision, risk-taking and a can-do spirit in architecture and planning exist in Asia today, qualities that seem to have been leached out of our society.

6. Protecting homes from corporate developers: Organizing = Safer domains
The bad news is that the Supreme Court, in the recent Kelo v. New London decision, gave its approval to the way that eminent domain laws are now being used around the country. At one time, under eminent domain, private land would be taken for the public good for, say, a highway or an airport. Now, however, small homeowners are routinely being forced out of their homes in favor of large private developments that could be considered in the public interest only in that they might increase the tax base. The good news is that the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Washington, has become a clearinghouse for information on how to fight such condemnations. While some will find the libertarian stance on property rights problematic -- they tend to value private property over environmental benefit -- the efforts of their legal team in the New London and myriad other cases have proved invaluable, and their new "Hands off My Home" campaign is grass-roots organizing at its best.

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By Karrie Jacobs

Karrie Jacobs was founding editor-in-chief of Dwell Magazine, and writes a column for Metropolis. Her book, "The Perfect $100,000 House," will be published by Viking next summer.

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