Construction lives on strange roller coasters. In 2006, home starts approached 3 million units per year, then plunged to around 300,000 units in 2009. These manic booms and desperate busts are virtually unprecedented in any other industry. If the automotive industry, agriculture or electronics saw their sales rise or fall by 90% every few years, job security in those fields would not exist.
Any architect over the age of 40 knows that the 10-year building lull after 2008 was an oddity, and now the last two years of the irrational Covid-induced building boom are coming to an end, as building rates interest is approaching 8%. Rather than Groundhog Day’s resignation, perhaps “here we go again” can become a moment of understanding.
After nearly half a century of design through five booms and five recessions, I know the impact of these economic convulsions is particularly acute in construction, because what architects create is either built or doesn’t exist. Architects are distracted by the task at hand. More work in a boom feels like a personal reward, and this overload of opportunity can often become a burden, albeit a paradox: Lack of work during times of crisis makes every job more valuable, with every project becoming a central presence in a desk.
Architects never direct our culture; we reflect this in our work. Whether the culture is in economic collapse or ecstatic reverie, our work is impacted. Beautiful and hideous buildings are built every year, it doesn’t matter. Unlike finance or product development, the explosion of architectural results during a boom produces more ugliness that we have to live with long after the boom is over.
Really bad buildings will always be inflicted on our culture when there is profit to be made. And yet…the worst economic crisis in American history was the Great Depression, yet Rockefeller Center was designed and built in a thoughtful and expressive urban location by Raymond Hood, when very little other construction was going on. This founding project aimed to reinvent Midtown Manhattan, a noble motivation. Unfortunately, the corporate towers that rise east and south along Sixth Avenue are artless pits created during the post-WWII booms, when the motivation was corporate identity. business and profit.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater was built at the height of the Great Depression, in 1936: its complex intensity was extremely difficult to build, not to mention the cost, but made possible in part by the depressed costs of a bad market (a little like the Rockefeller Center). Completed in 1980, the Thorncrown Chapel by E. Fay Jones was a labor of love built in the difficult times of the time, with a long and difficult funding cycle. Other Jones Chapels followed in the ensuing booms; they cost more, but they’ve never captured the magic of recession-born Thorncrown beauty.
During booms, the act of building is a mechanism not just for profit, but for delivering on the promises of the irrational exuberance of any period of go-go. Economic Darwinism may have a role in aesthetics. If the number of designers remains constant and the number of projects decreases (often disastrously), and better designers continue to work, while those who are simply filling a need and making affordable, code-compliant buildings are less desirable, with better architects designing more of what gets built, there are better results.
Through it all, established businesses have work to do, as they maintain value because of their history, but fees suffer as competition makes those looking for commissions desperate. But the meaning of what architects do reflects the values of our culture. In the event of a collapse, the risk is greater for those who build, and more attention is paid to maximizing the results of what is built, for all concerned. Builders also need work and more time to think about how buildings are constructed, improving value, both 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 the cost is less important than protesting. the urgency of optimism in boom times. Improving something usually takes longer than instant gratification, so projects that withstand the scrutiny and thought of the overriding fear of a bust often retain their value beyond the moment.
The gratitude of all parties for the privilege of building diminishes in booms (they’re too busy), but has real value in a bust. For builders and architects, pride in creation during crises makes more sense than pride in profit.
Recent years have seen the collapse of construction during the lockdown and then an explosion of activity afterwards. This crazy saw came after a decade of hangover caused by the Great Recession. And yet, few lessons seem to have been learned. When architects assume they deserve a boom and believe it’s the right state of a culture finally recognizing our worth, we forget that faith in us is a gift, not a right. When we don’t have to listen to the things we can’t control, ugly buildings happen. These boom/bust mood swings reveal the motivations of many designers. The obsession with objects is amplified when these objects are seen as mere vehicles for profit.
Today, there are countless posts about things built in this pandemic boom, trumpeting exaggerated projects and values that only happen in these times. The upcoming bust will be the phantom rest of all internet exultation. The calculus we are beginning to experience is not simply an economic reward. This will expose the shallow rewards of impulse buying. As with all other housing booms, the past two years have concocted a fast-food architecture that doesn’t feed.
I’m really looking forward to the next bust.
Images selected via Shutterstock.