High Standards

Less regulation is no way for the U.S. to produce better architecture

Architecture Development East Editorial
BIG’s Via 57 West. (Courtesy Nic Lehoux)
BIG’s Via 57 West. (Courtesy Nic Lehoux)

In a recent Crain’s New York Business editorial dated August 7, “Make architecture great again,” architect Garo Gumusyan argued, “architecturally, America isn’t great anymore.” He cited regulation as one of two reasons for a lack of great architecture in America. Regulation, he said, causes architects to suffer because of liability, too many oversight committees, and high taxes that make great architecture impossible.

This tired argument is made over and over by those opposed to regulation. More often than not, they are champions of market-driven private industry, which they believe can innovate us out of our problems, from the economy to the healthcare system. It is a position that never seems to go away, despite decades of evidence to the contrary in Europe, Asia, and even here in the U.S.

The New York Times recently published an article that provides quantitative evidence in support of regulation. “The Path to Prosperity Is Blue,” Jacob S.Hacker and Paul Pierson’s July 30 opinion piece, argues that, according to many economic and quality of life indicators—median household income, life expectancy at birth, taxation of the top one percent, patent rate, and number of citizens with a bachelors degree or higher—traditionally “blue,” or liberal-leaning, and mostly more highly regulated states perform better on these metrics.

How does regulation affect architecture? Like Donald Trump, Gumusyan’s claim first invents some kind of “Golden Era” when architecture was “great.” I wonder what he considers “great?” It is the robber baron estates or the postwar sprawl that brought us decimated urban cores and, later, suburban strip malls?

We aren’t sure why the author would claim that architecture is not “great” today. Here at the paper, we cover important and “great” architecture projects every day. Several very good—if not great—buildings have come online just in the last two months, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, BIG’s VIA 57 West condominium complex, (arguably) the World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Santiago Calatrava, as well as Herzog + de Meuron’s 56 Leonard, just to name a few.

It is hard to argue, as Gumusyan does, that taxes are making architecture suffer by driving up the cost of development. On the contrary, developers are chomping at the bit to develop each last plot of unused—and often used—land for the wealthiest one percent of the population. Often, these people are not even paying their fair share of taxes, let alone being burdened by them.

Condos are selling for record prices, and architecture is cited as one of the main drivers of the ultra-luxury market. And it is no coincidence that Douglas Durst will be living in the top of VIA 57 West. Regulation, especially design standards and reviews, is what would bring great architecture to the rest of us.

As for oversight, it could be argued that oversight and regulation by city agencies actually make architecture better. Amanda Burden is famous for having pressured developers into making better designs, resulting in buildings like VIA 57 West. They may otherwise have been the boring, developer-driven glass boxes that we see across New York City. It wasn’t the city that killed Frank Gehry’s Barclay’s Center—it was developer greed.

Gumusyan does rightly cite the bureaucratic shuffle as an impediment that architects must weave through—that can always be improved. David Burney and the Department of Design and Construction have made much progress in streamlining the process, which will we hope will continue to be improved under Mayor de Blasio and future administrations.

However, the author also claimed, “We are being left with blocks that blur together like rest stops on a godforsaken interstate.” It is an odd argument, as the land along the desolate stretches of the American freeway system is some of the least regulated, and thus the corresponding architecture is perhaps the ultimate expression of “freedom from regulation.” If there is a preferred site for outstanding architecture it is certainly not the highway off-ramp, but the downtowns of the U.S.’s largest and most regulated cities, like New York.

For a real test case, we would need to look to Europe. There, for the most part, everything from design to environmental standards are higher and more regulated than in this country. Norman Foster once famously said that he had been making buildings like the Hearst Tower for years in Europe. Everyday architecture there, from housing and civic buildings to urban infrastructure and parks, is of a higher quality. 

More regulation is not only good for design innovation like the step-back New York skyscraper that came from the 1916 Zoning Law, but it is also good business for architects. What is holding the U.S. back from producing great architecture is a lack of regulation, not more.

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