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.

But is the Gordons’ place really a loft? Or is it just a downtown condo with exposed pipes? Many critics find today’s new lofts amusing or dishonest. “We want to be urban, so we’re bragging about our fake lofts,” wrote Jaimee Rose, an Arizona Republic reporter. Rothe, the Scottsdale-based lighting designer, laments the “non-genuine characteristics” of Phoenix’s built-from-scratch buildings, which lack “the creaking floors and the smell of history.” By some definitions, every new loft is indeed a fake—whether constructed from the ground up, rehabbed as a calculated real-estate development rather than a spontaneous personal reuse of found space, or occupied by investment bankers instead of artists. The NoHo Lofts in an old Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer plant in North Hollywood may have been billed as the San Fernando Valley’s “Only Authentic Lofts,” but their earthquake reinforcements, bathroom walls, and kitchen appliances weren’t installed by squatting artists.

Today’s lofts are mere reproductions of the originals—and nothing offends architecture critics more than inauthenticity. As Ada Louise Huxtable, the influential critic, wrote in her 1997 book, The Unreal America:

Authentic is the real thing, and a reproduction, by definition, is not; a copy is still a copy, no matter how skilled or earnest its intentions. To equate a replica with the genuine artifact is the height of sophistry; it cheapens and renders meaningless its true age and provenance. To imply equal value is to deny the act of creation within its own time frame, to cancel out the generative forces of its cultural context. What is missing is the original mind, hand, material, and eye.

By this strict standard, the sole alternative to fake lofts would be no lofts, or at least no new lofts. But truth in advertising shouldn’t require formal stasis or a limited number of antiques. Take the “authentic reproductions” that so trouble Huxtable. They accurately embody forms developed in the past—forms we continue to value for their sensory delights. A reproduction’s claim to “authenticity” is an assurance that it contains the aesthetic wisdom evolved through an earlier era’s trials and errors. Loft enthusiasts debate intensely just which features define the authentic form: How important is an old building? Must there be high ceilings? Big windows? What about bedroom walls? A rough industrial space with concrete floors and few interior walls—a common real-estate definition of an “authentic loft”—may seem less authentic than a newly built loft if the old building has small windows and low ceilings while the new loft is bright and spacious. For people like the Gordons, what matters is not the architecture’s provenance but its effect.

Aesthetic authenticity comes not from some preexisting definition of truth but from a match between form and desire. To be fully authentic, a design must serve the emotional, expressive, and practical purposes of its users. Authenticity is thus what “seems right”—a decidedly subjective and changeable criterion, not something that can be deduced from nature. What we find authentic can evolve over time, as new styles develop through appropriation and recombination of old ideas. Today’s new lofts were never intended to re-create the full experience of the originals. Rather, we learn from the old to create the new, adapting elements that remain compelling outside of their original context. What makes a loft authentic isn’t its layout or its history but its ability to give people a true home—a dwelling that reflects their personalities and aspirations, including their dreams of urbanity.

Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of The Substance of Style (2003) and The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at www.dynamist.com/weblog.
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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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