7 mins read

Why So Many Banal Boxes? Because Architecture Reflects the Ethos of Its Time

The whining of architects is futile. The stick-frame-over-podium building—the so-called 5-over-1—is here to stay. The Box, as I like to refer to it, utilizes the hybrid technology of a concrete-and-steel base below wood-frame construction, and is used predominantly for market-rate housing. Despite the common negative reaction to its banal aesthetics, the appeal to a large segment of apartment consumers is undeniable. It’s an obvious hit with developers, too. 


The Box costs less to build than other building methods. If cost is king, then simple and big become the default settings for value—resulting in, well, boxes that cover as much of a site as possible. The cost savings allow for higher ceilings and bigger windows—things that homeowners love—but the developers don’t spend money on fewer units, more common space, or additional streetscape amenities. Perversely, the density so prized in sustainable design is not complemented in these buildings by an approach that values social good. “Density” in a Box means densely packed people. 

Beyond the cheaper construction costs, the focus of these buildings reflect the values of the 21st century. This New World is not brave, it’s safe. Our digital life encourages isolation, self-interest, and autonomy. We once went to school and work and social events and shopped in stores, but now the internet allows for a lifestyle that embodies a self-isolated existence lived inside, looking out.

The Box is a building mirror of its values. The aesthetic is impersonal, cheap, immediately available—an ethic that allows our desires to have as much autonomy as we can get for as little money as possible, when we want it.

Our buildings respond to this new world order as they have to every other cultural shift that has had nothing to do with architecture, but results in buildings changing to reflect new values and realities. But the imposition of economic imperatives on architecture has little to do with designers. Our cultural values, as imperfect as they are, get channeled through our buildings. This hard shift to individual isolation and social distancing is merely reflected in these antisocial boxes, Amazon warehouses for humans.

The recent pandemic sequestration only accelerated this “me first” ethos. Zoom has warped office culture and emptied movie theaters, churches, and shopping malls. But even simple personal interactions are becoming depersonalized. In places where anyone is helped, when those helping us are thanked, the response to “thank you” used to be the universal recognition of the human transaction: “you’re welcome.” Now, those being thanked do not participate in an interaction, they respond with a statement of separation from their service, saying “of course” or “enjoy.” Checking out what we still buy in stores is increasingly pushed to machines; humans are often in short supply—we do a dance with the inhuman.

The 21st century is trending toward the antisocial. Birth rates are low. Fewer of us are getting married. In this world, we can make money and spend it while bypassing interaction with others, and often in physical isolation. Our new buildings reflect these values, as will the retrofitting of all the once-socializing buildings now serving an increasingly less social society.

A disposable society simply buys new rather than taking the time to rethink, revise, renew what they already possess. We value the power to toss what we have and buy what we want, now. It’s as if life has no delivery charges; what we want, we get, no matter what we already have.

The Box offers a way to deal with the world that may be a metaphor for the attitude that favors instant gratification, without any thought of viability beyond the moment. Its “lite” construction will keep the weather out until the paper-thin skin fails—and when it does (and it will, a generation after occupancy), it’s a disaster for light wood-frame construction.
Like the banal residential Box, 21st century skyscrapers are merely vertical stacks of space, expressing the same values of more space for less money and more profit. Nothing new here, either: think of the flood of worker housing that swallowed farms that surrounded new factories at the explosion of the Industrial Revolution. The endless tenements spread at the edges of large cities at the accommodation of late 19th/early 20th century immigration. The low-rise and eventually razed buildings that made way for corporate towers in city centers. The superhighways that sowed the invasive seeding of millions of suburban homes in the 1950s.

The car ended the front porch in most 20th century suburban homes in favor of the attached garage, shielding homeowners from any contact with the outside world. There is a direct line from the single-family home’s attached garage and the interior parking garages used in the lower levels of the Box. Both are based on avoiding any interaction outside your front door.

In every one of those building types, convulsions in our culture were caused by technologies and economic opportunities, which changed our buildings. The vast majority of worker housing, skyscrapers, tenements, suburban homes—and now the Box—were cheap and fast to build.

Thirty-five years ago I designed a bar in a New York City apartment for a Mad Men–type ad executive. Of course the design was over budget. We were deep into value engineering. At one point he pulled back, saying, “You know there are only three ways to do anything: good, fast, and cheap. But you can only do two of them in anything you do. The third is always excluded.”

The Box is fast and cheap, but it’s clear that it’s not “good” for community, durability, or even human connection. This anti-aesthetic aesthetic is the antithesis of creating community; the Box is an assemblage of isolation.

We don’t have to accept the rote or rude accommodations that we are now sentenced to. It’s now up to architects to accept the truth of the meaning of the Box. Will architects see the possibilities and create the Chrysler Building amid the bland neoclassical skyscrapers? Will there be a Prairie School that happens alongside all the worker housing of the Industrial Revolution? Will there be a Sea Ranch amid bland apartment blocks of mid-century America? A Camden Yards amid the corporate ballparks? We must find the beauty in the Box.

Featured image via Wikipedia.