Culture And Commerce April 2007

Lofty Ambitions

Once upon a time, lofts were cheap spaces for struggling artists. Today they are phony and pricey, and that’s just fine.
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The Phoenix Loft Network
Slideshow-style photo collections of lofts, interviews with loft owners, essays about lofts, and more. Hosted by Joel Contreras, the Phoenix real-estate agent quoted in this article.

When Harvey and Sandy Gordon decided to move from their mid-century modern house in a suburban Houston neighborhood to a high-rise condominium in the city’s museum district, they told their real-estate agent not to show them any loft units. Over the past few years, Houston has become one of the country’s centers for built-from-scratch lofts, selling big windows, an in-town location, and a creative aura. But the Gordons weren’t interested.

“We were from New York originally,” explains Sandy, “and in New York, a loft was an authentic happenstance. They were warehouses that got converted, and I could understand that. But just to build a loft new seemed to me a little bizarre.” Her husband, a retired urologist, agrees: “What could be sillier than building a loft building de novo?”

After rejecting conventional condos as cramped and claustrophobic, however, the Gordons finally agreed to look at one of those ridiculous new “soft lofts”—a unit in a “first-generation new-build loft-style apartment development” that opened in 2000. Experience quickly trumped abstract objections. “The rooms were huge, there was light and glass all over, and there were 12-foot ceilings, even with the stupid pipes up above,” recalls Sandy. “There was a wonderful feeling of airiness and openness … I fell in love with it immediately.”

They paid a little less than $450,000— more than they had originally budgeted— for the 2,380-square-foot condo and moved in last June. “I don’t think it’s silly anymore, because clearly it was a marketable idea, and people like it,” says Harvey. Then he qualifies his change of heart: “It’s silly—but it’s a [design] convention, and lots of conventions are silly.”

Lofts were never supposed to be homes. They were vacant old factories and warehouses, taken over by artists looking for cheap space and good light. In the 1960s, loft pioneers in New York violated zoning laws and managed without heat or interior walls, creating functional arrangements in strange spaces; a loft might be 25 feet wide and 200 feet long. The original lofts represented an ingenious, economical compromise, not a new architectural ideal. Yet, quite by accident, those loft-dwelling artists invented a new form of vernacular architecture. Their lofts demonstrated the possibilities of a big open space more suited to a certain kind of modern urban life than the rigid divisions of a traditional home. The trend spread to other cities, popularized by movies, from An Unmarried Woman in 1978 to Big a decade later, that portrayed lofts as scenes of creativity and independence. By the late 1980s, affluent professionals were paying a premium for the wide-open living spaces made fashionable—and habitable— by bohemian types.

“I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to live in a downtown setting, and in a loft, because I saw it in movies,” says Andrew Ruiz, the 36-year-old community manager of the Santee Court lofts in downtown Los Angeles, a complex that occupies three old factory buildings and has four more building conversions under way. To moviegoers, lofts looked exciting and fun. And there was the pure aesthetic appeal—the light and space and modern materials. As lifestyles changed, lofts were increasingly well adapted to the way many non-bohemians wanted to live. The childless couples, informal entertaining, and home-based work spaces that used to be eccentric are now, if not mainstream, at least fairly common. Today’s lofts represent not only the adaptive reuse of old buildings but also the adaptive reuse of the very idea of loft living. The style is less about architecture than about a particular ideal of urban life: informal, open to new experiences, self-created, and “close to the action,” as Joel Contrer­­as, a Phoenix real-estate agent and loft enthusiast, puts it. Loft living is the antithesis of suburban domesticity, if only because the open spaces don’t easily accommodate family life.

Lofts also offer residents the opportunity—and responsibility—to structure their own space to reflect what’s important to them. That may not mean throwing paint around like Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman, but it does allow unusual combinations of home and work: a photography studio on the main floor with a sleeping platform above, for instance, or vice versa. Lighting designer Chad Rothe, who defines a loft as “an open shell where one can design within the four walls to accommodate one’s needs,” displays large-scale art on the oversized walls of his Scottsdale, Arizona, loft, while professional DJ Mikyl Calovich plans to build a booth and mini- studio in his.

Some loft dwellers devote most of their space to entertaining, with minimal bedroom space or a Murphy bed. Even a “soft loft” like the Gordons’, which has full walls around its bedrooms, contains fewer rooms than a traditional home of the same size, demanding more thought about how to use the space. The Gordons have made part of their large bedroom into a study with two desks, their computer, and an Eames chair. “Whereas in the house I would have been sitting and reading in a different room,” says Harvey Gordon, “here, I’m sitting and reading in a different part of the same room where I sleep.”

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.
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