By Request: Architecture Policy

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"By Request: Architecture Policy"

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Minderbender asks:

It strikes me that, at least in my own experience, not all urban areas are the same. Downtown Chicago and parts of lower Manhattan have gorgeous, interesting buildings, and I don’t find them oppressive or ugly, even though there aren’t that many trees.

Meanwhile a lot of the new towers I see going up are hideous, and midtown Manhattan makes me hate the city/myself/everyone. Which leads me to ask: how important is aesthetics in urban policy? Should we be willing to subject new development to aesthetic review, even though that might threaten to make dense development more expensive? Is there a good way to go about doing this so that the review boards don’t get taken over by people with an agenda (probably an anti-density one)? Is it worth paying extra for public buildings so that people find them attractive, or are other needs simply more urgent?

I think this is an important issue, since I certainly agree with the premise that not all “urban areas full of tall buildings” are the same from an aesthetic point of view, and having a viable aesthetic is important to making density politically viable. This is arguably an externality situation, since living in an ugly building doesn’t cause you to suffer the full effects of its ugliness, and residents or tenants of an attractive building don’t capture the full benefit. But this is one of these cases where the existence of a real market failure doesn’t mean that there’s a good regulatory solution. Aesthetic issues do come up through existing processes for neighborhood airing of grievances, so it’s not as if this hasn’t occurred to anyone—there’s just only so much that can be done.

One regulatory issue that does need to be considered, however, is whether you’re making it economically viable to do interesting architecture. In downtown DC we have a very strict limit on the height of buildings. Under the circumstances, to build anything other than a pretty basic box structure would represent an enormous economic loss to the developer. Consequently, the buildings are uninspired as individual works and collectively they’re extremely monotonous. Even if we held the currently permitted level of density constant but allowed for more variation in heights we might see more interesting buildings getting made as architects could work with a greater variety of shapes without costing the client enormous sums of money.

And last, I do think this is a reason for public agencies and non-profit institutions to commit to aesthetic excellence in their own structures. The public sector probably shouldn’t try to get too imaginative or cutting-edge, but ensuring a high-level of classic style should be a priority. Non-profits—museums, universities, etc.—can handle the innovation. That said, there are often clashes between architects’ ideas of what buildings should look like and the ideas of people who want to see livable urban areas. Aesthetics matters, but it matters insofar as it contributes to livability, not as a totally independent consideration.

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