Financing suburban architecture

By Felix Salmon
March 14, 2012

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I have a review in Architect magazine of the Foreclosed show at MoMA — the exhibition which seeks architectural solutions to the suburban foreclosure crisis; I also talked to a couple of the architects involved in the exhibition at the press preview in February.

My main beef with the show is that it’s far too utopian and impractical. That’s par for the course when it comes to museum architecture shows, but I was hoping for more realistic proposals in this particular case, just because the foreclosure crisis is so real and urgent.

Anybody who visits the exhibit can see that nothing remotely along the lines of the buildings being proposed is ever going to be realized — Orange, New Jersey, for instance, is not going to replace its roads with long strips of narrow housing. But what’s less obvious is the way in which all of these projects are also a huge financial stretch. They were charged with coming up with innovative forms of home finance, but all those innovative solutions tend to boil down to the same basic idea: get the local municipal government to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars and then spend that money on a massive housing development which will, somehow, generate the income needed to service the debt.

Such ideas have a tendency to work much better in theory than they do in practice; they’re fragile things, at risk from dozens of different directions at the same time, and if I were a local bank, I’d stay well away from funding them. And I certainly would never advise small and unsophisticated suburbs like these ones to get into bed with the sharks peddling municipal bonds and associated interest-rate derivatives.

Michael Bell, in the video above, makes the very good point that architecture and architects are largely absent from the suburbs. But I guess that I was really looking for something much lower-cost than the mega projects that the teams in the MoMA show came up with. Certainly lower in up-front cost, anyway. The foreclosure crisis was caused by people borrowing enormous sums of money and then finding themselves unable to pay it back. The last thing we want to do is risk repeating that all over again.


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I don’t know how you can say that the housing crisis was mostly a suburban thing. In downtown Portland all of the condo projects that were completed between 2007 and 2009 were subsequently turned into apartments or turned over to banks. Unsold units in bank possession were auctioned off or otherwise sold at a 40% discount. This reversed the trend of the prior decade of apartment buildings being converted into condos. Look around and the cranes are building new apartment buildings, not condos.

To the point of suburban architectural solutions to making housing affordable. You know that museum-curated shows are always ‘think big or don’t come’. When was the last time you saw a curated show present pragmatic proposals that could be installed in real life, the next day?

Real life solutions are already being played out in the burbs of Portland, and undoubtedly in hundreds of other burbs in the nation.

Orenco Station is supposed to be a New Urbanism project, although its growth has been driven by the big-box strip mall (a blend between the traditional strip mall and the single lot big box store).

A twist on Jane Jacobs romanticism connected to mass transit rail is discerned from stop after stop along the TriMet MAX, with tracts of townhomes and pocket parks within 1000′ of a MAX stop.

Not two weeks ago, the Portland Home Show unveiled the IKEA House. A collaboration between IKEA and a local company – Ideabox – that designs and builds prefab structures. It turns out, the solution to making housing affordable is to downsize the McMansion and make it practical inside.

In any case, the solution is either to expand suburbia outward or increase density — move out or move up.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

Over 20 years ago Angela Brooks was looking at this condition in a proposal in Southern California. The proposal was titled “Post Suburbia” and won a PA Award in 1992. Her proposal looks at how to add density to the tracts of single family homes by allowing new zoning and modest expansion of Single family homes to allow more dwelling units. You can see more of the proposal just posted on the Brooks + Scarpa Facebook page at: arpa-Architects/131136066935667

Posted by BrooksScarpa | Report as abusive

Please see my post in Architect Mag online.
Being an architect I am just amazed there were no practical solutions to the myasmatic real estate industry of today.
This is a multivariate problem with NO utopian solutions. And I remain saddened that my bretheren in architecture would publish such utter non-sense. Sheesh!!!

Posted by rjchicago | Report as abusive

One other point – the interview with Mr. Bell in essence points out his socialization of housing and thereby negates one of the big principles that sets our nation apart – Property Rights!!! Somehow this fact is getting lost in these utopian schemes.

Just food for thought!

Posted by rjchicago | Report as abusive

There’s the publishing world of architecture – propagated by academics and starchitects – and then there’s the people with offices in almost every town doing the best they can. The former develop illustrious careers, building reputations instead of structures. The latter do the best they can, which is rarely enough.

Some architects (including me) want to be artists, and you don’t get into a show at MoMA by proposing moderate, affordable, pragmatic solutions to housing problems. And despite prevailing sterotypes, architects don’t really have that much control over the final outcome. It takes good taste and good money to create good buildings, and since the first two are in short supply these days, so is the third.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive