We have all seen them. Sites are wiped clean in days, massive foundations of concrete are formed, poured and sprout out of the scorched earth. Then, in a few months, hundreds of humans labor like ants on a carcass to create a six-story box.
The landscape has gone from raw, or lightly used by random buildings, to a flattened plate upon which these boxes sit as though dropped off by the world’s largest UPS truck. How did this happen?
Buildings change. Architects (like me) would like to think we are the change agents in how buildings evolve. Sadly for our collective hubris, architects respond more than we innovate.
Worse yet, architects must respond to forces that have nothing to do with aesthetics, but end up being huge engines of creation. Changes in our demographics, technological capabilities, financial resources pervasively shape the buildings we see around us. In the Boom/Bust economy of construction, waves of opportunity make for copy-cat development, and in Connecticut our small, dense world has served as a perfect platform to expose distinct epochs of building types that have come, gone and change.
Before World War II, there were simply cities, farms and factories. No suburban sprawl, no highways, save the Park of Merritt — a road built not so much for mass transit as elite recreation. When all those GI’s came home, and all those farms finally, fully failed and Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the beauty of the automobile life, massive suburbia was seeded by I-95 and I-91 in the form of quarter-acre-lot, middle-class residences, mostly one story, and following the basic gable-roofed cape or ranch. Eventually, these homes and their sites grew, but the single home on its own plot of dirt was the dominant paradigm for two generations.
Then, in the 1970s, federal tax law allowed lucrative investment for condominium construction. More fallow fields sprouted larger two-story rows of buildings, mak ing bedroom communities dense. Until another tax law, this time by Ronald Reagan who ended the financial benefit of investing in these freight-train pile-ups of common-wall townhouses.
In the decade of the raging exuberance of the late 20th/early 21st century real estate boom, baby boomers matured to think their homes could have an infinitely ascending value, which made for another bubble that blew dozens of thousands of ever-inflating McMansions into the fields all around Connecticut’s suburban juggernaut. Until 2008.
Even the insanity of greed and ego could no longer avoid the reality of real value, so a single building type, the American single-family home, wrecked the entire world’s economy as millions of money-making delusions were inevitably unsustainable.
Now, after war, roads, tax law and greed shaped our homes, and the economy and demographics have now made single-family homes more like one-off personal investments rather than an industry here in Connecticut, the International Building Code has changed how we make the next generation of homes: this time for the children of the baby boomers and the downsizing boomers themselves: the Box Apartment Building. But why, oh, why, must these sparkly new constructions be so banal and blank?
The way the building code defines what gets built describes the essential realities available for any architect to deal with in this brave cheap world.
This new tide of bland building is not any architect’s vision, no, it’s due to how a code revision reduced the cost of construction so that the needs of the 21st century are met with a profit margin that spurs development. Hopefully development that does not endanger the world’s, or at least New England’s, economy.
Right now, all across America, we have yet another example of code-shaped architecture. The 2012 International Building Code described a new building type that made mid-rise structures substantially cheaper and quicker to construct, while still maintaining the same structural and life safety standards.
“Stick Frame Over Podium” is the term most often used to describe these buildings. Also called “One Plus Five” or “Two Plus Five” construction, this hybrid construction uses a cast concrete or fireproofed steel base of one or two stories that then has the cheapest, quickest building system available built over it: light and stick frame, usually limited to five additional stories. Engineered wood is often used and, when combined with fire suppression sprinklers and wall/floor separations, huge savings in construction and time are realized. As a result, six or seven stories can explode out of the ground in months.
But it is not just the “Five Plus Two” boxes that are in full bloom. With all the grace and subtlety of the other 21st-century Box Boom in architecture — the new wave of “storage facilities” sweeping through established residential communities — it is easy to feel pinched between these Big Boxes. This echo boom of boxiness has erupted to accommodate all those de-accessioning Baby Boomers’ possessions when they are collectively moving to in-town apartments. Moving, I might note, into the aforementioned “stick frame over podium” boxes all over the state.
For better or worse, the infection of the internet into all our lives has transformed evolution, experimentation, even ignorant problem-solving into a meme ethic. We see, we “like,” we “share.” We celebrate memes — visual sound bites — that are only original the first time you see them. And then you see them over and over and over again.
Once again, architecture plays follow the leader, only now the leader is not the car, the mortgage limit or even tax code; it is a collective sigh that building something in a decade-long recession is better than not building. So if building a code-defined box for humans and/or their stuff is what is possible, so be it.
The problem is that these boxes of opportunity and convenience are here, now, and probably for at least a lifetime or two. Is that a good thing?