A World Nobody Wants

We have built a world that nobody wants. Nobody planned for our cities to turn out this way. Nobody decided our apartments and houses should be the way they are. Nobody wants to take responsibility for what happened to them.

They’re awful. Living inside a standard apartment of recent construction is like living inside a simulation that’s constantly glitching. Your towel bar looks like a towel bar but it cannot hold the weight of a wet towel without falling out of the wall. Your floors look like wood but then they start rippling or peeling back at the corners like the shitty petroleum byproduct that they are. Your doors look like they close securely, but you know that if you accidentally walked into one while checking Twitter on your phone there’s a good chance you’d rip right through it. It doesn’t look like there’s water inside the walls, but you can smell the mold, feel the damp behind the scratchy, echoing drywall that looks like plaster but is in fact made of cardboard, gypsum, and the cheapest glue in the world.

Nothing is quite as bad as a freshly built apartment, but it’s bad everywhere. Take a step outside and you encounter a world that has been designed for the exclusive use of two-ton pollution beasts that will accidentally kill you if you walk near them. Newly built houses keep the weather out by means of a kind of concealed Saran Wrap, which, as you’d expect from that description, fails all the time. Newly constructed office buildings sheathed in glass must keep the air-conditioning running in the deep of Winter lest their inhabitants scorch to death like insects under a magnifying glass.

Despite what you might think, nobody wants this. There’s no conspiracy. Architects think about the terribleness of your apartment much less than you would hope — basically never — but when it does come to mind (probably because they, too, live in such apartments), it makes them feel sad and helpless. This world is definitely not what they wanted.

I know less about contractors, but the ones I have met seem like nice and not-evil people. They always complain about the shoddy way things are done nowadays. You can see a sad glow in their eyes when they talk about how people used to build.

Developers? Maybe you think they’re evil, but I’m guessing that a developer who went all out for high-quality workmanship other than in very high-end contexts would go bankrupt and cease to be a developer rather quickly, so it’s not like they have much of a choice. My impression is that developers spend large portions of their lives — lives that you and I might spend falling in love or reading to children — arguing with city officials about whether they really deserve an exemption from the R-7 special overlay zone requirements set forth by the infinitely wise master plan of a few years ago, which allows you to build either a McDonalds or a Starbucks on that site: totally your call which of the two, Mr. Developer Man. If my impression is correct, I can’t say I begrudge them their wealth.

Not only is there no conspiracy, the situation looks even worse from the inside of the building industry. It sucks to see other industries being revolutionized, fortunes being made, breakthroughs happening that people will tell their grandkids about (can you imagine how cool it would be to tell your granddaughter that you programmed the first car that went coast-to-coast with no human input?) — and then to look back at the world of Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC, as it’s not-so-winsomely called) and realize that things are basically the same as they were a half century ago, with the exception that in 1970 the people involved believed the future might be better.

In 13th-century France, entire new technologies of church construction were invented, boomed and turned cliché in the course of fifty years. Some of what was built during those rushes of collective mania are among the most beautiful and magnificent objects human hands have ever touched. America has used the same amount of time to ensure that every construction worker always wears a hard hat and a shiny vest.

Why have we built an entire world that nobody loves? Why have Americans made a country that, as James Howard Kunstler once quipped, isn’t even worth dying for? Why is our civilization the only civilization since the beginning of time whose wealth turns into hideous highway viaducts that crumble as soon as they’re built, instead of temples, monuments, towers, boulevards and gardens to make us the envy of all history?

The way I’ve defined the problem makes it too big to diagnose. Is it cultural/spiritual malaise? Is it the necessary price of freedom? Is it just what happens when a single planet has to house 7+ billion people for the first time?

I don’t know, is the short answer. Maybe all three of the above contribute, and I don’t know exactly how to address any of them. But I suspect that a big part of the problem is something fairly humdrum, difficult to fix but not, perhaps, totally impossible.

Here it is: Construction is stuck halfway between craft and mass production, with the upsides of neither and the downsides of both.

In other words, all the effort and expense of a bespoke suit, with all the shoddiness and disposability of a five-buck t-shirt.

What is it like to buy a bespoke suit? I’ve never done it myself, I’m sorry to say, but my understanding is you have to sort of know a guy, or know almost enough about suits to make it yourself, or just be willing to spend, spend, spend. You might have to make several trips, if you want the real thing. It will not be ready quickly, and there may be delays. You will need to spend time talking to the person making the suit, at length and on multiple occasions. You might fight with that person.

Substitute “building” for “suit” in the above paragraph, and you have a good description of what it’s like to try to get a new building built. With the following extremely important difference: the whole time you’re buying the bespoke suit, you can be pretty sure that if you have the money and the inclination and you stick with it, you’re going to emerge from the process with something gorgeous and wonderful.

Whereas at the end of the building process… Well, you’ve seen what new buildings are like. You may have lived and worked in one. They are of course occasionally gorgeous and wonderful, but that “occasionally” is fairly generous. It feels like a miracle when it happens.

What is it like to wear a t-shirt that costs five dollars? Unlike buying a bespoke suit, this is an experience I have had many times. The material is either scratchy or creepily slick in a way that makes you wonder if you’ll get cancer from wearing it while you exercise. It does not fit properly. It does not look good, unless you’re the lucky kind of person who looks good in cheap t-shirts. But it is undeniably, amazingly cheap.

I don’t need to belabor the point. The suit is expensive because it requires significant time from people with special skills and knowledge. The shirt is cheap because it was manufactured by firms that squeeze every part of the t-shirt-making process so hard that what emerges are objects meeting the exact minimal requirements to qualify, ontologically and/or legally, as t-shirts.

The industrialized part of construction is the production of building materials. These materials are extraordinarily optimized. I made fun of drywall at the beginning of this essay, and indeed drywall is terrible in every way that matters most, but as a solution to a particular problem it is miraculously successful. Specifically, drywall is very, very good at meeting the legal requirement of “fire-rated wall covering” as cheaply as possible. It is also very good at being for sale wherever buildings are being built. Like all industrial products, it is manufactured to an inhuman degree of precision.

The precision of drywall turns to disadvantage on the worksite. A skilled, traditional plaster worker can lay plaster just so and make almost any wall look and feel amazing. First the worker lays two base coats, then a finishing coat, which gives the wall a variety of appearances — flat or swirling or textured, as the worker desires. But a skilled drywall worker will struggle unhappily to install a perfectly flat piece of drywall that’s exactly 48.00” by 96.00” onto a wall that’s framed just a bit out of plumb and happens to be 95.73” tall. Struggle unhappily and expensively.

This is bitterly, enragingly perverse. Drywall is precise because it is manufactured by machines. It is manufactured by machines to make it cheap. And because it is precise, it is expensive for humans to install.

It would be expensive to finish all of our walls in plaster rather than drywall. But at least we’d get something nice, something beautiful. And on the other hand, if our walls were finished by robots just clipping pieces of drywall together, the walls would still be made of drywall, would still be scratchy and echoey, but at least they’d be cheap.

The current situation, in which buildings are both soulless and expensive, shoddily and laboriously built, is a profound waste of human ingenuity. It is a waste of human ingenuity on the worksite, where construction workers must contort themselves to adapt to the rigid demands of industrially produced materials. And it is a waste of human ingenuity in the factory, too, as the cost efficiencies that the manufacturers of building materials have discovered are destroyed by the expensive methods required to turn those materials into buildings.

The solution, as I said, is difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. And just because I said it’s possible doesn’t mean I have the solution in my back pocket, or that I’m going to try to fit all of my thoughts about spatial metaphors in design software or the aesthetics of expansion joints into this already long essay.

But I will say that I think the solution will surprise us. It will not look like anything we’ve seen before. It will look neither like the past nor the future we imagined in the past. To say so is trite, and yet it remains hard to believe, to really believe, that it’s true.

And yet we know that the future will not look like the present. We will reach the far shore of the vinyl ocean we thought had no far shore. One day the drywall factories will fall silent. We will climb the mountain of hollow-core doors and look down on the beautiful valley of something that isn’t hollow-core doors.

Offices may look like cathedrals. Cathedrals may look like moonbases. Train stations may be delivered by blimp. Robots might lay plaster base coats for human artisans to finish, beautifully, as only humans can.