How the Recession Has Changed Architecture

The economic downturn has drastically cut the volume of new buildings. But the pause may "cleanse a lot of the crap out of the system."
  • Transcript


Question: What have been some of the main effects of the recession on architecture?

Paul Goldberger: Well I think the recession is doing two things.  First, it cuts the volume of building hugely. You know, the first thing you give up in bad times is building a new building.  I mean, you've got to eat, you’ve got to do certain other essential things, but building a building for most people, for most businesses, most institutions, is an optional thing.  And so when times are tough, you give it up.  It's both optional and unbelievably expensive.  So therefore, it’s the first thing to go.  That’s the bad effect, obviously, of the recession. 

The good effect, though, is that it can kind of can cleanse a lot of the crap out of the system.  I mean, we’ve just come through a period of enormous and, in some ways excessive, prosperity.  A lot of what we’ve built has been excessive and more than a little vulgar.  So if the recession puts an end to the McMansion, it will have been a social good in some way actually.  That’s not to—I don’t mean to be flippant about it, obviously there is more social ill to a recession than social good, but somewhere within all the awful stuff, there’ll be a modest silver lining and that might be that we will begin to understand that, you know, an upper-middle class prosperous family of four does not require 15,000 square feet of living space as a bare minimum, which is the way a lot of the country's been operating in the age of the McMansion.
Has the recession affected certain types of architecture disproportionately?

Paul Goldberger: The recession’s affected architecture at all levels, I think, because there’s not much money to build.  Remember, commercial building, nobody builds with their own money.  It’s all money that gets lent by financial institutions.  And they’re not doing it right now, in this climate.  So buildings at all levels have been affected.  The government is not building much, commercial developers are not building much.  About the only amount of building you do see is some institutional building; academic institutions, cultural institutions, perhaps that had been planning projects for a long time, have raised a lot of the money they need through private philanthropy and are also figuring that, with construction way down this is actually a good time because they can build it at a cheaper price then they might if things come back in a couple of years. So they’re going ahead with a certain number of projects, but an awful lot of stuff is not happening—in that category as well as other categories.  So, it’s way down at all levels. 

We’re coming out of this period when architecture’s been incredibly ambitious and sometimes too ambitious even.  Although far be it from me as an architecture critic to say there’s such a thing as architecture being too ambitious, but in fact, sometimes it has been.  It’s tried to hard; it’s sort of acted as if it was going to solve all the world’s ills by a bunch of fancy buildings. 

In any case, I think we are pulling back on a lot of that stuff and there, there is both a good and a bad side also.  The good side is sometimes things are being done just in a more simple, clear, basic way without a lot of unnecessary frills and fuss.  You know, it kind of... maybe we’ll get back to a respect for a kind of modernist purity sometimes.  And that's all to the good. 

On the other hand, if things are just done more cheaply with crappy, junky materials, that’s not to the good.  And I think we’re seeing some of both of those things right now.

Recorded on June 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman