Given the country's dire economic state, many pundits are predicting a shift from the conspicuous consumption of luxury products to more humble displays. Apparently, any new acquisition must also manifest a strong utilitarian streak and a level of pious sobriety. It's all the better if that new thing you buy isn't sexy or is even a tad dowdy.
Going to treat yourself to a new car? Better steer clear of ostentatious Audis and boasting BMWs, even if they're “super ultra low emissions” and thrifty on gas or diesel fuel. Instead, a Prius will fit the bill. It's the librarian with her hair up in a bun—only the glasses never come off and the hairpins stay firmly installed. But you get 48 mpg, city.
What does that mean in the house design realm? Well, one principal with a large firm says architecture in the near future is going to shed its curves, because no client in his right mind will foot the bill anymore for something as gratuitous as Gehry's titanium curlicues. It's back to the Bauhaus box, he suggests—this time with double-pane windows and roofs that don't leak. Right angles will rule the day, and design will deign to lumber's stock dimensions. Everyone will have less of what they want, in keeping with our new dedication to austerity.
I have a hard time believing any of these predictions will take hold in any universal way and for any extended length of time.
Back in 1991, when Washington Dossier, the city magazine I worked for, was on the brink of falling victim to the widespread recession, we made some similar earth-shattering pronouncements about the luxury class. The magazine was founded on covering the social scene in Washington, D.C., especially the superhighway of the very rich—the charity ball circuit. The last issue of the magazine, before its owner pulled the plug? It had an all-black cover with white type announcing “The Death of the Charity Ball.” We predicted that such frivolous expenditures of money in the name of supporting the less fortunate would no longer be tolerated. People, with their newfound virtue and sensitivity, would write a check instead, with the full amount applied to the needy organization.
That last issue of Dossier never made it to the printer, nor to anyone's mailboxes. There were no digital editions back then or magazine websites for us to post it to. I have a photocopy of it in a box somewhere in my basement.
Do I need to tell you that charity balls came back in a big way just a short time later? How could Washington society do without the Cancer Ball, the Hope Ball, or my personal favorite, the Eye Ball, for very long? It would be like sawing the rungs off the social ladder. No way up for the aspiring newcomer, and no public stockade for the disgraced wrongdoer. And, as it turned out, if people didn't get something in return, they didn't give as much.
So, no, I don't think all the color and joy will drain from American architecture. It defies human nature not to strive for higher levels of achievement and greater depths of expression. We are aspirational and inspirational creatures. We just have to add more perspiration to the mix as well. When we make the decision to produce, we have to make a far greater effort to conserve every resource involved: money, energy, materials, land, water.
The first LEED Platinum house—designed by Ray Kappe, FAIA, and built by Steve Glenn's LivingHomes—comes to mind as a case in point. Good and gorgeous, it's got the heart of a Prius and the soul of a Ferrari.
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