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Opinion: Reading American History in an Architectural Detail

In recent developments around town, a new design trend has emerged. Architects of residential buildings of modest heights, as little as three or four stories, are opting to change the facade material of the uppermost floor, and sometimes create a slight setback. The effect is often to cheapen the structure, exposing the main facade for what it so often is: a veneer. But what is the purpose of this novel technique?

The short answer is that it is intended to pacify conservative neighborhood groups. These groups, whose hate for the height of new buildings borders on the fanatical, would rather see floor counts restricted further, but this conflicts with economic rationality. Instead, developers, via architects, offer a visual olive branch; the building may be a taller than you would like, but we can all pretend that the uppermost floor simply doesn’t exist.

Together, the two parties enter into a mutual fantasy. And what benefits does the community reap from this arrangement? None. We are left with with a host of strange and dishonest facades that future Richmonders will struggle to interpret. Let us explain it for them.

To discover the true cause of this phenomenon, we must ask deeper questions. What does this denial of building height accomplish? Why do reactionary neighborhood groups, themselves often symptoms of neighborhood change, strive to stymie further development? What intellectual drug has addicted them to the lowest common denominator?

In a word, Postmodernism. The postwar period, for all of its triumphs and comforts, taught Americans to be wary of change. The potential terror of the nuclear era was amplified by the build up of cold war tension. The atrocities in Vietnam and the acknowledgement of racial oppression at home irreparably damaged the American self image. Finally, rising powers in the east have threatened to dethrone America as the global economic hegemon. At some point along this rocky path, Americans began to look more and more fondly at the past, projecting on it a false image of simplicity and agrarian virtue.

Postmodern angst has had an outsized influence on architecture, in part because of the monumental mistakes of mid-century urban planners. Still, for a culture that makes much of individuality, creativity, and innovation, we are curiously uninterested in progress in the urban realm. New buildings must conform to the image of past, an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society. Today, a developer trying to build a four story structure in an ordinary townhouse neighborhood is flattened into a caricature of capitalist greed. But would anyone hate a four story building from 1910 simply because of its height? Of course not. It would be celebrated as the landmark of the neighborhood.

The cardinal sin of the modern structure is its tacit assertion that the city of the future might somehow improve on, or even surpass, the city of the past. The average Richmonder might be able to stomach modernism in an institutional context, as in the wildly popular addition to the VMFA, but they will not permit this architectural blasphemy in their own “backyard.” A populist anger toward architects, developers, and other urban elites has overtaken the local political sphere. We can consider the newly popular and completely trivial top floor psuedo-setback as the architectural equivalent of “Make America Great Again.”

In the face of this conservative wave, is there any hope for urban progressives? Yes, because time is on our side. Many of our fellow citizens may look to the past for answers to today’s problems, but in historical terms, forward is the only direction there has ever been.

 

Don O’Keefe

 

Image Credits:
Image 1, Citadel of Hope, via Church Hill People’s News, 2017
Image 2, Jefferson Street Triangle Development, via Church Hill People’s News, 2017
Images 3-5, Westhampton on Grove, via WesthaptonGrove.com, 2016

5 Comments

  • On the disappearing top floor - Church Hill People's News | Richmond, Virginia

    […] Dan O’Keefe at Architecture Richmond takes on a particular urban architectural feature of our … […]

  • Burt G

    Pretty much the best thing I’ve ever read about architecture in Richmond. Thanks for this.

  • Natedrizzle

    If you are so concerned about it, why don’t you buy them and build them the way you want? Honestly I hope more people build it like this just to piss you off and remind you they don’t need your input.

  • Thomas Nelson

    Fuck off Natedrizzle, it’s NIMBYs like you who hold growth back from this city. The setbacks are to appease troglodytes like you. Luckily Richmond is growing in population again and hopefully denser, taller development is built just to piss people like YOU off and remind you they don’t need YOUR input.

  • Kathryn S Oti

    I could not agree more!
    -Kathryn

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