Fartchitecture is ruining your neighborhood, and you probably haven’t even noticed
Update Nov 23, 2020
Given that this post seems to be making the rounds again, I figure it may be wise to include a quick disclaimer: While the frustration with low-quality architecture that fueled this writing has done nothing but intensify over the last 5 years, re-reading this article as a slightly older and (I hope) slightly wiser person has left me feeling uncomfortable with the approach I took to expressing that frustration, specifically with respect to my near-criminal oversimplification of the systems that produce these types of buildings.
As someone who is substantially affected by the built environment, I stand by everything I wrote concerning the quality of these buildings and their negative impact on communities. But that is now where I draw the line — please excuse any further babble as the overconfident ramblings of a 25 year old with a bone to pick.
I wanted to be an architect when I was younger. I didn’t know how to explain it at the time, but looking back, I realize it was because I imagined they got to work with cities the same way that modern-day UI designers work with websites. The buildings themselves were the UI elements, and proposed designs were evaluated on a familiar range of criteria:
- Does it serve its intended purpose?
- Are people likely to use it as intended?
- Does it compliment the neighborhood?
- Does it detract value from other elements?
- Does the aesthetic match the overall tone of the area?
- Does it inspire people?
- Will it feel important to them?
- Will it strengthen the community, or will it fragment it?
I also imagined that, much like a good UI designer, a good architect’s priority would be to recognize when a building fails to deliver on those criteria, and to make iterative design changes until it’s as close to perfect as possible.
Boy was I wrong. If my childhood idealization of architecture equates to modern UI/UX design, then actual real-world architecture is just that useless, Web 1.0 1999-style graphic design we’re all so happy to have moved beyond. That’s right, despite the fact that architecture as a field has had thousand of years longer to evolve, the web adopted in a single decade what architecture is currently ignoring: that if a particular element fails to either fulfill its purpose or meet a minimum set of humanitarian goals, it doesn’t deserve to exist.
In my opinion all modern American architecture pretty much falls into one of two categories:
The first one is what I like to call “high art-chitecture.” High art-chitecture buildings are basically just art projects — unnecessarily weird, big, bendy things that are much better at catching people’s attention than they are at being buildings. These are the types of buildings that starchitects like Frank Gehry build that are mostly just for tourism and bragging rights. They’re kind of like the “buying a Ferrari” of architecture.
High art-chitecture doesn’t have a whole lot of function, but it’s not so bad. Due to its high cost, it doesn’t take up too much real estate, and if you view the buildings more as art than as shelter, like giant sculptures in the middle of the street, they’re actually kind of nice.
The second architectural category though, is much less tolerable, and unfortunately for us, it’s the category that almost all modern buildings fall into. I don’t know if it has an official name, but it’s the kind that produces the miles upon endless miles of totally inconsequential, cookie cutter buildings that are so boring they look like they were farted onto the street by someone who had something much better to do.
This type of Fartchitecture, as it shall now be known, has taken over cities. It exists, largely because real estate developers, in the interest of profits, have abandoned almost all interest in producing buildings that are actually decent and are only willing to pay small amounts of money to shameless architecture firms that will accept their dirty work.
This type of development is invading your neighborhood. It’s eating away at your quality of life, and you probably don’t even know it. If Fartchitecture were a website, it would be one of those sites that’s so bad that you can’t figure out whether the person in charge of it is bad as his job or just a straight up bad person — like if you mashed together the original version of healthcare.gov and one of those trendy news websites that makes you click ‘next’ 60 times to read the whole article, and then sprinkled on top a spammy weight-loss pill site that accusingly asks you if you’re sure you want to leave if your mouse even gets close to the button that closes the window.
I walked past a brand new building earlier this week. Does it look familiar?
Have you seen this building before? It’s brand new, so unless you frequent Chinatown in Los Angeles, your answer should probably be no. The reality, though, is that this building probably feels very familiar to you, and that’s because if you live in an urban area, there’s a high probability you have several structures that look just like it right outside your front door. Take a peek! They might be different shapes or colors, but if you break them down into components — 7 story height, staggered edge depths; greebling; monolithic footprint; alternating, seemingly unrelated colors and surface materials — they’re exactly the same.
That’s not a coincidence. There are several very concrete reasons these buildings look the way they do, and real estate developers are hoping none of us will catch on to them. Their sneaky tactics are earning them huge profits at the expense of the people and neighborhoods their developments affect, and they know that if we knew the extent to which they’re taking advantage of our ignorance, we wouldn’t tolerate it.
Lesson I: Most new buildings aren’t even architected
It’s true. When developers plan buildings these days, they don’t start from scratch. They buy a pre-made template, and then they pay an architect to tweak the plans to “make it work” at the given site. And by “work” I mostly mean “fit.” All other considerations are pretty much moot. It’s kind of like designing a website on Squarespace. It’ll look ‘normal’, but the chances of it inspiring you or having a soul are basically zero.
Lesson II: ‘New’ is not the same thing as ‘good’
Humans tend to assume that something new is necessarily better than something old, and developers use this to their advantage. They say things like, “If the building was so bad, people wouldn’t live in it,” and then they stamp the argument by packing the building up with renters who say they love it. The thing is, often times it’s not the building those people like, but the simple fact that it’s new. It has a hot tub. It has a gym. It has clean carpet and new appliances and softened water and everything works. What the developers won’t show you (and what Yelp will show you) is what happens a few years down the line when the newness wears off, stuff starts to break, and the people who live there join the rest of the community in their resentment for the structure.
Lesson III: Staggered edge depths and varying colors are an optical illusion designed to trick you
If you think those fun colors, shapes, and materials on the outside of these huge buildings are there because of some sort of fashionable trend that’s sweeping the architecture world, you’re wrong. They’re there because of science.
Emerging research over the last several years has shown that people are happiest and most comfortable when the buildings alongside them are narrow and include plenty of lines of sight. Conversely, buildings that are extremely wide and box-like which take up large stretches of sidewalk and block all sight lines of sight make people feel nervous and uncomfortable. The funny colors, varied surface materials, and shifted edges are an optical illusion designed to trick your brain into thinking that one giant box of a building is actually multiple buildings so that you won’t hate it like your genetics programmed you to. As you walk down the sidewalk, your brain sees the edges of the building and imagines that you might be seeing the entrance to a shopping alleyway or a plaza or a courtyard, all features that contribute to local community and improve quality of life. But they’re not really there. It’s just one, giant box.
You might wonder why, if multiple narrower buildings are proven to make people happier, developers still choose to produce one giant building. There’s a couple reasons for that:
- There aren’t as many pre-made plans for small buildings, and pre-made plans are the ones that are tested and pretty much guaranteed to be approved. If developers decide to create their own plans, it might take them longer to get them approved, and that cuts into profits.
- Multiple buildings means multiple permits, which again, could add time to approval and cuts into profits.
- Adding courtyards and alleyways eats into some of the space that could be rented or sold, and that (surprise) cuts into profits.
Lesson IV: 7 story buildings are less safe and are terrible for the environment
Have you noticed that most of these buildings are around the same height? Tall, but not tall enough to be considered a tower? That’s because (at least here in Los Angeles, I assume the legislation exists elsewhere as well) the law requires all buildings above a certain height, usually around 7 stories, to be built with sturdy steel and concrete instead of wood. Steel and concrete, however, are more expensive than wood, so despite the fact that steel and concrete buildings are both structurally safer and much easier on the environment, developers almost always opt for the tallest structure they can build that still allows them to use cheap wood. This (surprise) maximizes their profit.
Lesson V: It isn’t going to look good later, either
Every now and again I’ll hear someone try to justify terrible architecture with a comment like, “It just takes time for a building to develop character,” implying that fifty years down the line, modern buildings will have acquired the kind of charm that turn-of-the-century buildings have today. This is false for a number of reasons, but one of them trumps them all, and that is that they simply won’t survive long enough to even verify that claim. Their lack of emotional importance paired with the rapid rate of physical decay due to the low-cost construction means that the buildings will be torn down and replaced before they ever have the chance to become worth saving.
All of this basically boils down to a single issue: real estate developers and their architects are choosing their profits over your quality of life. The thing is, if you ever made that point directly to a developer, they’d likely defend themselves the same way that anyone else who makes unsettling compromises for money does:
“Well, I’ve gotta make money on it somehow.”
First off, I’d like to see the balance sheet. I’ll admit I don’t build property myself, and that I could be off-base. But I find it hard to believe that real estate development is a low-margin business. Especially considering the kinds of people that get into it. They’re investors. They’re not building one or two buildings in their home town, they’re building them around the country, in places they never visit or have plans to even go to. That type of behavior doesn’t make sense without the potential for enormous profit.
But, even on the off-chance that that’s not the case, if developers need to make these types of sacrifices in order to make their mega-projects profitable, then perhaps we’re better off without them!
The very best projects always come from the people who take ownership of and pride in their work. From Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, to the individual craftsman homes built by working-class people in Chicago and Los Angeles, to even the massive developments by modern-day starchitects, everything worth looking at was built with the intention of leaving behind a mark worth being remembered for. Fartchitecture, on the other hand, is completely anonymous. The strip malls, the miles of tract homes and bland apartment buildings — the people responsible for those works cannot distance themselves enough from them. They’re purely revenue generators.
The result is that in addition to having no soul, the buildings also don’t represent anyone or anything at all. They’re just there. Serving their meager purpose until they’re ready to be torn down and replaced in a few decades.
It’s time we put both development and architecture back in the hands of people who actually have an incentive to care. Our legislation needs to work for people who want to create not only something useful, but something that has purpose and intention. Something that is cared about, brings communities together, and contributes to the local sense of place instead of destroying it.
Let’s work on that, guys. It’s about damn time we did.