Are recessions good for architecture? As painful as downturns may be, a bracing change often betters the built environment. A go-go economy licenses too many complacent ideas, and too much overwrought styling. (How many of us would mourn McMansions?) Fewer buildings go up in a recession, but those that do are subject to more thought and self-examination, and they tend to be more sensitive calibrators of a changing culture. In other words, a recession is often the moment when architecture finds its future. Or maybe it’s just one of those quirks of history, like the old adage about lower hemlines and a bull market. Either way, I offer some examples of good architecture in bad times:
Walter Gropius built this modest home for his family in an apple orchard in Lincoln, Massachusetts in 1938, two years after leaving Nazi Germany. It may look unprepossessing to us, but it was one of the most influential residential designs of its day, introducing modern principles of efficiency and simplicity at a time when America was ready for them.
The decline in government spending at the end of World War II led to a brief recession and a period of scarcity. During this dip, the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames built a home for themselves in Los Angeles using ready-made parts. It was comfortably cluttered and colorful–a revelation to those who dismissed modernism as a cold white abstraction. The house was the centerpiece for a design practice devoted to making lasting works out of plywood, resin and other cheap materials.
In the early Seventies OPEC quadrupled oil prices. That, combined with Vietnam spending, led to stagflation and recession. In architecture it was a time of experimentation as modernism loosened its hold. Peter Eisenman built a defiantly impractical house, the Frank Residence, with an intricate arrangement of walls and columns jutting from a simple box. As much sculpture as architecture, it was a pioneering example of how Eisenman and his fellow travelers in the Deconstructivist movement would try to remove buildings from conventional expectations.
The Iranian Revolution and the subsequent jump in oil prices induced an early 1980 recession. The iconic design image of the day was Philip Johnson’s Chippendale crown on the AT&T building (now the Sony Building) in Midtown Manhattan. Historical vocabulary had been effectively banned during modernism’s long reign, and Johnson’s flourish was a provocation and turning point: post-modernism had arrived.