Tract Homes and Starchitecure

 

It still strikes me that we haven't made the right links between the housing bubble and starchitecture. If much of the world is economically devastated, high-end architects and developers in global cities find their offices thriving. If starchitecture has pulled back a little, its perhaps in name only as the boom seems to continue, having missed only a beat or two.  

If the self-congratulating promoters of the creative city may pat themselves on the back these days about the failure of vast swaths of tract homes, they still fail to understand that the products of Toll Brothers and the products of Richard Meier Associates are the results of the same economic mutation.

I think we can all agree that there is an obvious relationship between the ill-fated real estate bubble of the 2000s and the new products for real-estate consumers developed and popularized at the time such as interest-only mortgages, balloon payments, subprime mortgages, and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) as well as complimentary instruments for financial investment such as mortgage-backed securities and the credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that backed those securities. The creative innovation that brought us these financial instruments is the highest form of production in the global city, at least from an economic perspective. If the creative class that produced and marketed these instruments worldwide lived in the towers made by starchitects, the relationship also goes deeper than that.  

Tract homes and designer apartment buildings were two sides of the same radical speculation, both precarious constructions of finance, carefully targeted to the appropriate demographic. The endless proliferation of tract home sameness found an echo in the ceaseless production of unprecedented formal innovations. If the latter aimed to always be new and photogenic, such works were not so much the products of polemical statements about architecture as they were of assembly lines capable of endless stylistic variations. Typically utilizing the most advanced computer-aided design and construction technologies available, such work cements a conception of architecture not as a series of enduring monuments but rather as part of a consumer fashion cycle.         

The difference between the repetition of the same and the repetition of the different is not so much an abstract notion of quality as a question of finance and motivation. The tract house was marketed as both a place for a family to dwell and as a lucrative but safe investment, an interchangeable commodity that could be exchanged at will for an ever-greater price. Its ubiquity was assured by the therapeutic figure of the realtor and the process of staging the interior to substitute traces of the unique with the universal. In turn, the high-end residential apartment was billed as a theatrical pied-à-terre, a temporary residence aimed less at existing city populaces than at individuals from abroad seeking to cement their identities as members of a global elite. They sought to join this society while diversifying their real estate investments internationally to hedge against any localized collapse in property values.

Developers of starchitect-designed properties targeted that demographic of the global elite already interested in investing in the art market or owning works of reputed cultural significance. In this, it is instructive to compare the branding of starchitect-designed apartment buildings with how Donald Trump-branded apartment buildings targeted at a market-segment interested in associating itself with more conventional ideas of celebrity and with conventional amenities such as interior waterfalls, high end French restaurants and billiards rooms. Whatever name a luxury building was branded with, be it Herzog and de Meuron or Donald Trump, the deeper pockets possessed by purchasers ensured that after the global downturn in real estate, the market would remain liquid and prices wouldn’t collapse the way they did for suburban tract homes.  

It's really the Pareto priniciple at work. After the collapse, the overproduction of real estate worldwide only served to cement the value of the core of global cities as what David Harvey has called a spatial fix for capital, thus demonstrating its value even further. In other words, it all worked out very nicely for everyone holding the cards, didn't it?  

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