Sunday, January 17, 2016

Suburban home builders in the City: Like K-cars with faux wood panels

The good news of suburban tract home builders directing their investments to the City is that not as many pristine landscapes will be lost to sprawl and pseudo-urban ersatz "townhouses" strewn around in chunks of nine (or whatever zoning allows) while the City gets new residents and tax payers.
Anything but a place (Photo: ArchPlan)

The bad news is that those inflated row house imitations are now springing up in what presumably would be their native habitat. The result is similar to serving Coors Light at the Munich Octoberfest.

Next to the historic originals the whole architectural charade of the builder homes becomes plainly obvious: The arbitrary use of plastic cornices, inserted fake window mutins that even in their proper execution were hardly ever used on actual Baltimore rowhouses, the faux keystones, the tired brick/beige color mélange, all that could be chalked up to clumsy  flattery.

But the fact that these new "row-houses" are wildly out of proportion, that they are bloated like athletes on steroids, that their first floors sit too low, that they are four stories tall and still have penthouses, and that they don't form streets and alleys but line cul de sacs that are nothing more than parking lots, that they don't have a clear front and back orientation, all that is inexcusable. 
The four story "town-homes" plus penthouse  tower over the small historic houses (Photo: ArchPlan)

One would think that fifteen or so years after the first foray of mega suburban Homebuilders into Baltimore (Pulte into Federal Hill) the design vocabulary would have evolved and found a 21st century, urban expression that speaks to Millennials and retiring modernists alike. 
Adoring the water and the Domino Sugar sign. The main view line.
(Photo: ArchPlan)

But no. What Richmond American Homes puts up near Key Highway oriented towards the Domino sugar sign like magnets facing north, is precisely the same vocabulary with which the historic Koppers foundry was rebuilt as Camden Crossing and with which Locust Point began its renaissance through the Towns at Locus Point development.

The tone-deafness of those mass production builders is doubly sad considering that examples of contemporary and yet contextual infill had been around even before the productions builders rode into town. Just think Bolton Hill, Otterbein or Grindalls Yard in Federal Hill.
Zig-zagging layer cakes along Covington Street (Photo: ArchPlan)
The homebuilders designs are as if Chrysler would still roll K cars with wood paneling off its assembly line or how a North Korea would design a smart phone. 

Why can't there be a new esthetic? Why does all the cool new contemporary design have to be quarantined in cities like Denver, Austin, Atlanta or San Diego?

The new urbanistas wouldn't want to be caught dead with a flip phone in their pockets or suede shoes on their feet. Why do home-builders still think that their target market still shops for transistor radios? Why the grotesque inflation of scale in a time when the tiny home is the new black? Why the lack of meaningful public space when share space and commons are all the rage?

Maybe I am missing the point entirely and it is the cheesy imitation that is precisely what makes Baltimore authentic, from Tin-Man to form stones. But that guy standing on the stoops of his formstone home across from the new Federal Place did not think so.

"I will move out", he said taking one of his I-phone ear plugs out and pointing to the massive vinyl back side of "Federal Place" across from his house, "I will just move a few blocks up Gittings Street, where I don't have to look at this."

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Parking lots instead of streets (Photo: ArchPlan)

Related article on this blog:
Sad looking rowhouse facades

Visit the weekly in depth article on the Cities, Architecture and Planning blogs "Community Architect" 

1983 Chrysler Town & Country woodie wagon in Denver junkyard
Chrysler K car wagon
Historic Gittings Street in Federal Hill (Photo: ArchPlan)

1 comment:

  1. In Annapolis fake and inauthentic materials prosper installed under the radar at night and on long weekends as the residents & businesses alike cheapen their heritage and undermine their equity slowly over time.