Monday, April 25, 2011


I recently drove past a nearby business that used to call itself an architectural salvage yard.  The sign now reads, “Ecopark”.  Like the old-fashioned term “junkyard”, which over time has been upgraded to “auto wrecker”, then to “auto dismantler”, and finally to “auto recycler”, this new nomenclature strives to accord the architectural salvage yard some deserved respect.  More importantly, thanks largely to the green architecture movement, the--um, ecoparks-- are now increasingly seen as a thinking person’s resource instead of a lumberyard for the poor.  

And more power to them.  Since World War II, vast quantities of fine building materials--much of them infinitely superior to the flimsy dreck available today--have been destroyed in the name of progress.  And in an era when anything old was anathema, it was the architectural salvage yards that offered vintage materials a second chance at life.  

While there’s little doubt that we should utilize the sundry bits and pieces of buildings that have met their maker, the wider question is whether we should be demolishing these buildings in the first place.  Many old structures represent an enormous and often irreplaceable investment of money, material, and human effort, and it’s simply bad resource management to replace them with modern-day versions that, all too often, don’t measure up.

Alas, the many impatient and shortsighted bureaucrats among us like to insist that renovating old buildings is uneconomical, since it’s often more expensive than simply building new ones.  Well--so what?  This argument doesn’t even compare apples to oranges:  it compares oranges to Orangina.  While the two must have something in common, you’d be hard-pressed to say what it is.  

Public school buildings offer an excellent example.  The 1980s brought a sweeping campaign to ensure the seismic safety of California schools.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, state planners effected this worthy goal through the wholesale destruction of superb school buildings dating from the 1920s and 30s, on the grounds that they were ”too costly to retrofit”.  Almost without exception, their replacements were bland, characterless, and generally unloved stucco boxes that may--or may not--be seismically safer according to what we’ve learned about earthquakes since.  The upshot:  a few profitable years for public school architects and contractors, a lot of feel-good press for politicians, and an enormous disservice to generations of students who’ll spend their educational careers in uninspired, second-rate surroundings.

Technical issues aside, there are less tangible reasons why preservation often deserves to trump new construction.  Some of our most susceptible structures date from the interwar era, an unstinting age when quality and permanance were a given, and when budget dollars went into actual construction, instead of  being piffled away on years of procedural wrangling.  The resulting structures unabashedly courted civic pride, not political expedience--a difference that anyone, be they sixteen or sixty, can still readily appreciate.

More power to architects using salvaged materials from “ecoparks”.  Yet we should also realize that, often, our forefathers’ legacies are worth a lot more intact than they are in little pieces.  


Monday, April 11, 2011


We live in a dazzling new era. In almost every field, vibrant innovation brings great promise for the future. How sad, then, that the housing industry is racing headlong into the 19th century.  

Granted, we’ve seen quantum leaps in residential energy efficiency--most of them compelled, mind you, by government legislation. Beyond this, developers seem content to let meaningless gimmicks and foam plastic frou-frou represent their best ideas for the 21st century. Personally, propellerhead gizmos that fill your Jacuzzi while you’re out stuck in traffic are not my idea of a lifestyle improvement.

While all else moves bravely forward, today’s new homes are instead regressing to the overblown proportions of Victorian times. Now, as a student of architectural history, I love Victorians as much as any paint remover salesman. But that doesn’t make them a paradigm for the future.  

Victorian homes were in large part a response to the industrial innovations of the 19th century. By the 1850s, a new construction technique known as balloon framing (which gave us the familiar 2x4 stud wall) was finally doing away with the laborious joinery of post-and-beam construction. Around the same time, the wire nail machine replaced costly hand-wrought nails with dirt-cheap mass-produced ones. These breakthroughs went hand in hand, suddenly making it both cheaper and faster to build homes of unprecedented size.  

The availability of mass-produced, machine-made ornament quite literally put the icing on this Victorian cake, eliciting a mania for decoration that has only recently been approached again.   

By the close of this era of increasingly bloated homes, it was already obvious that you could have too much of a good thing.  The vast, high-ceilinged rooms of Victorian houses squandered space and trapped heat, while their labyrinthine floor plans made for a lot of wasted steps. And of course those wedding-cake moldings were quickly revealed to be a maintenance nightmare. If this doesn’t sound familiar to owners of today’s new homes, it will soon enough. 

These kinds of failings are a big reason Victorian design was held in such contempt after the turn of the century. A few decades of living in needlessly oversized and overcomplicated homes had given people some real insights into practical living.  The result was a popular movement aimed at designing smaller, simpler and more efficient homes--a concerted backlash against the Victorian era.  

Builders at the threshold of the 20th century had the good sense to recognize and respond to these demands.  It’s notable that even during the boom years of the 20s, they didn’t feel obliged to offer enormous homes for the prospering middle class.  On the contrary; houses became the smallest they’d been in a century.     

Nowadays, the thought of looking to developers for smaller and more practical houses would strike most people as laughable. Meanwhile, as more and more pompous (and profitable) extravaganzas go up, fewer and fewer working people can afford to own a home at all.   

A hundred years ago, builders were meeting the demands of a new era filled with changes and challenges. Today’s developers are once again in a turn-of-the-century mood.  Too bad it’s the wrong century.