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Bubble architecture, economically speaking

Bubble architecture, economically speaking

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More than a couple critics have located both the climax and requisite decline of an “architectural epoch” in the last decade.  During that time, the United States - and by extension, much of the world - built up for itself a real-estate bubble just begging to be popped.  And popped it was.

Among the high-profile development victims were Frank Gehry’s Brooklyn Nets arena, Santiago Calatrava’s Chicago Spire, and the same’s 80 South Street.  But why dwell on these projects?  Architects certainly need no reminding of how bad things are or recently were.  So why not take a look at a few buildings that were built despite a bad economy?  The thought came to mind reading an article in Harvard Magazine’s Jan./Feb. 2010 issue about an exhibition being held at Harvard Business School. Bubbles, Panics, & Crashes: A Century of Financial Crises, 1830s-1930s takes a look at American history repeating itself again and again, in the form of crises that in some way or another always seem to involve real-estate speculation; today’s real-estate bubble is by no means the first - or worst - in American history.

Using the exhibition’s labeling and timeline, here are few buildings that in some way beat the odds.

1837 - “The Hard Times“ - excessive real-estate speculation (particularly on the part of banks, which invested in over-valued land without sufficient due diligence) fueled what would become a 6-year depression with long-lasting effects, including a significant (though ultimately temporary) shift away from trade with China to domestic railroad investment.

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Boston Custom House. Notwithstanding the Panic of 1837, the federal government approved construction of one of America’s most familiar Greek Revival structures to shepherd the flow of foreign goods into Boston Harbor.  Originally, the Custom House, designed by Amni B. Young and built between 1837-1847, was a squat, domed building with a portico supported by a sturdy row of Doric columns.  Although the building in the above cropped may not look familiar to many, the newer (1913) 26-story tower that sits on top of the original sky-lit dome certainly is; Peabody & Stearns‘ tower design is strikingly similar to the Met Life Tower (see below), which was finished in 1913.

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Athenaeum of Philadelphia.  John Potnam, the Scottish architect credited with popularizing theItalianate style in America (at least until Alexander Jackson Davis‘ pattern books came along), also introduced Philadelphia to the style when he designed this library in 1845.  The Athenaeum of Philadelphia still occupies the building as a “center for edification in the arts and sciences,” which is one of only 20 similar libraries still operating in America.

1873 - “Off the Rails” - when the Civil War ended, all that money invested in war bonds needed a place to go; railroads were the primary beneficiary, thanks to a growth patterns (i.e., Westward Expansion), graft, and easy credit.  The problem was that Europeans (esp. Germans) supplied much of that credit, and when they cut back American investments in 1873 (due in part to corruption - e.g, the Credit Mobilier scandal), American businessmen weren’t able to close the financing gap.  Jay Cooke’s shop collapsed and with it, the economy into a depression that is believed to have lasted until the 1890s.

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Trinity Church. Construction of Henry Hobson Richardson’s masterpiece substantially slowed when the Panic of 1873 struck.  Luckily however, the design and materials used weren’t affected too much due to budget cuts, and when construction was finally completed, Richardson managed to spark an entirely new style, Richardsonian Romanesque.  Richardson described the church as a “free rendering” of Medieval Romanesque churches and monasteries, since it boasted heavy massing, polychrome cladding, and cruciform layout.  Richardson’s work at Trinity Church led to many commissions for a variety of civic structures that were even more revolutionary in appearance, since, despite having no Medieval analogue, they retained similar stylistic elements (train stations, libraries, courthouses, jails, etc.).

1907 - “The Bankers’ Panic” - two copper market speculators unsteadied an already-tenuous economic climate (life insurance company scandals; San Fran earthquake of 1906; stocks down over 50% from 12-month high) when their attempt to corner United Copper’s stock failed miserably.  Among other financial calamities, bank runs would have spread across the country were it not for J.P. Morgan, who engineered (and partly funded) a desperate infusion of liquidity into the markets with mere minutes (literally) to spare.  This panic, and Morgan’s intervention, directly led to the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

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Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (Met Life) Building. From 1909 to 1913, Napoleon LeBrun & Son’s Met Life Tower, clad in marble and seemingly transplanted from Venice, replaced the 1908 Singer Building as the tallest building in the world in an informal contest that the Chrysler & Empire State Buildings would engage in with much more intensity twenty years later.  A few researchers have noticed another similarity between these two pairs of “tallest buildings”:  a discomfiting correlation between their construction and economic calamity.  Today, the “skyscraper index” correlation is being confirmed once again by the Burj Dubai, the world’s newest tallest building.

1929 - “The Great Crash” - the big one.  No doubt, this one needs minimal reviewing.  Suffice it to say that widespread speculation in both stock and real-estate markets propelled the economy into the realm of fantasy.  People fell prey to the allure of (eternal) high returns and invested without due diligence and even without money (some brokers lent people up to 2/3 the investment price).  As I’ve noted previously, Florida was perhaps the most bloated real-estate market, founded almost entirely upon speculation.

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Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building.  The Empire State Building may have hogged the spotlight from 1929-1932, but the PSFS Building is the true visionary of the two Depression-era siblings.  The PSFS’ reward for building during an awful economic climate was occupancy in a sumptuous International Style monument (at least until the 1980s’ savings & loan crisis; the building now houses the Loews Philadelphia Hotel).  Approved for construction in November of 1930 and fully realized by 1932, William Lescaze and George Howe’s visionary, modernist design was the first American International Style skyscraper (and one of the best, too).  Like the later Seagram Building andLever Housein New York City, the PSFS Building was rare in that it fully lived up to Modernism’s hype - thanks to its coherent massing and textured facade, but also because of the PSFS’s determination to use luxurious, long-lasting materials, including polished granite for the curving base, limestone for the vertical piers, and black-glazed bricks for the utility portion of the building.

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Irving Trust Company Building (One Wall Street). We have another bank to thank for one of the most timeless of all Art Deco skyscrapers, the construction of which straddled the Great Crash.  Ralph Walker’s design was understated, even boring, compared to exuberant contemporaries such as the General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue or even Rockefeller Center.  But One Wall Street is serenely elegant, sheathed in a faceted layer of limestone (unlike the AT&T Building’s similar, slightly-less-opulent brick facade, also designed by Walker) and fronted by an extraordinarily carved lobby entrance.  I am unaware if Frank Gehry looked to this building for inspiration, but its gently undulating, cloth-like facade could easily serve as precedent for Gehry’s much-anticipated, Beekman Tower, which has its own undulating (titanium) facade.

Related post:  The most corrupt real-estate projects in American history.

Images courtesy of (1) wallyg, (2) sp8254, (3) zogglet, (4) jim-in-times-square, (5) jwmarcus, (6) nezkapix.

One Comment

  1. Luigi Fulk says:

    What a wonderful blog! Please continue this great work I will be sure to check back regularly…

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