Baked Buildings

“What is the idea of financing these baled buildings?” asks WILLIAM ZECKENDORF. “These buildings that look like everything that teas ever built before. Why perpetuate such monstrosities?” Mr. Zeckendorf, who is the President of Webb & Knapp, one of the leading real-estate developers in the country, with headquarters in New York, raised these questions and then went on to give his provocative answer in a talk he made (without notes) before the faculty and students of the Harvard University School of Design. Thanks to a tape recording, the Atlantic is able to preserve a very shrewd piece of American philosophy.



I SHOULD like to explore I the relation between realestate economics uand architecture. I hope the time is coming when we shall have a much closer harmony between the arts and the engineering on the one side and the economics of real estate on the other.

On the one hand, we have people who build buildings. The so-called builders are interested in three phases of their activity: first, to buy a piece of land as inexpensively as possible; second, to conceive and execute a building as cheaply as possible — and I do not mean that in the flattering sense of the word; and third, to borrow the maximum that they can borrow, and subsequently either retain or sell the property. If they retain it, they retain it until it falls in by its own failure, from economic pressure; or else they sell it to someone who thinks he can make it work out. And, on the other hand, we have the aesthetic people of the architectural and engineering life, who are capable of thinking in very broad terms and producing things of importance real contributions to art— but who fail to understand the down-to-earth essentials of real-estate economics.

I think it is just as fundamental for an architect to have a working knowledge of economics as it is to have an understanding of the classical, the traditional, and the modern concepts of art and architecture. Whatever education in the field of engineering is given him, until he understands the economic function and the size of buildings, I say he is no architect, he’s an academician. On the other hand, to permit builders to go on, with no consideration except price, to erect whatever their fancy dictates, without regard to what they do to the neighbor who lives next door, brings about a potential form of iconoclasm which is injurious to the entire neighborhood and seriously impairs the general economic structure of the community in which they build.

It is a curious thing that in the great depression of the thirties‚ it was the buildings that were mortgaged for the greatest amount by the most speculatively minded builders, who were interested chiefly in borrowing the maximum and building for the least cost, and whose costs of operation were the highest, and whose vulnerability was the most pronounced — those buildings were the first to fall. As they fell into ihe hands of creditors, they undermined the sounder and more conservative investments, because when something goes through the bankruptcy court, there is no bottom. The receiver rents for what he can get; he rents at whatever price he has to take to fill his vacancies because he is not interested in any other way: and the more conservative man who borrowed a smaller amount and built more wisely finds himself in competition with a mortgage that has been wiped out. As a result, his equity is wiped out too because his rents are undermined when he has to compete with bankruptcy renting.

This is a hard-boiled approach, but it brings home the extent to which even the toughest investor who is not interested in the aesthetic side, who is not interested in anything relating to beauty or functionalism, but who thinks only in terms of the conservative — how very much concerned this investor is with the general subject of having buildings built by builders who are interested in something that is functional, beautiful, and soundly economic, and designed by architects who understand the investor’s problem and who, therefore, do not design buildings that are art for art’s sake or merely expedient.

That is why I should like to see architectural schools make as part of their “must” courses the subject of basic real-estate economies and construction. If that is done, these schools will send out men who will develop this country on a basis that we will be proud of. We may well be entering upon a golden era of construction, when the merger of the real-estate builder-economist and the artist and designer can be so skillfully integrated that we shall bring forth residential, industrial, and commercial architecture which will stand the two important tests of time: economic soundness and beauty and functionalism. If we continue as we have been going, letting the devil take the hindmost —the builder builds for as little as he can and borrows as much as he can and runs, and the architect follows him — then the rebel who would design only things of great beauty can find no clients or only a few clients who are as crazy as he is because they do not understand. In that case, I say, we still have to wait for our golden era. But it is not necessary to wait. Not at all.


LET us analyze for a moment the reasons w hy all this confusion comes about —why it is that we do not have architecture that is both beautiful and functional, and why we do not have buildings that are economically sound in every sense of the word. I should pause here to make it very clear that there are exceptions to what I have said on this subject. There are many instances of buildings which combine beauty, functionalism, and economic soundness. But wherever you find them the percentage in proportion to the total number of buildings erected is infinitesimal. Therefore, I do not address myself to the few but to the many.

Let us talk first about the builder. You go to him, a speculative builder — speculative builders build about 90 to 95 per cent of all the things that are built in this country for rent — and you say, “Why do you dare to build that terrible-looking six-story apartment house that looks as though it came out of an oven, baked, according to a stenciled plan ?”

He will say, “Well, maybe I like thal and maybe I don’t. Maybe I would like to build something more beautiful and maybe I wouldn’t. But that’s not my business. My business is to build within the framework, concept, and spirit of the FHA.”

Well, I do not have to spell that out, but I shall do so for the record in a very simple way. It means designing as cheaply as possible, borrowing as much as possible, building as inexpensively as you can, and never mind the rest.

The builder says, “ I’m not going to take a chance and build something more beautiful than that, something revolutionary. Maybe I do like a more modern design. But when I take t hat into a lending institution and they say to me, ‘What is this plan here? We’ve never seen that before. We’ll discount that by 25 per cent in the amount of a loan you’ve asked for’ — well, that puts me out of business. I’m not that kind of a builder.” And he speaks for 95 per cent of the boys. “I have to borrow from the man who will lend me the maximum that is permissible, and that man is the fellow who will lend me on exactly what every predecessor building of the same character looked like and was all the way back. Don’t, blame me, Blame the fellow I borrow’ from. Someday I’ll build something more beautiful. I’d like it perhaps. But I cannot borrow and I’m no contributor to the general welfare of the community. If I want to give charity, I’ll find my own way to give it. But not in my business.”

I am oversimplifying this, of course. But basically the fundamental philosophy of the speculative builder is exactly what I’ve said. You try to find out who this guy is who finances him, who limits his horizon, his vision, and his potential.

Who is he? He is the insurance companies, the big ones and the small ones; he is the savings banks, the building and loan companies — the impersonalized corporations that people visualize when they see a great tall building with a beacon on the top of it. But basically, those beacons arc supported by a little group of self-perpetuating trustees, mainly of the same social strata, and you go talk to them. You say to a typical one, “What is the idea of financing these baked buildings that look like everything that was ever built before? What is the idea of perpetuating these monstrosities?”

The trustee will say, “Who are you?”

“Well, I’m just a fellow who wants to know what is going on; why you do it. You are in control of the purse strings. You’re the fellow who calls the tune and the other fellow fiances because it is your money that makes these buildings go. And if you sax X song, they will dance X dance, over and oxer again until they’re dizzy, How come? Why have you made so little contribution to the furtherance of thinking in design and execution?”

Now here is the answer you’ll get from t he typical trustee. He will say to you, “I am a manufacturer; I’m a chemist; I’m a banker; I’m a retired industrialist; I’m a professor, or I’m something — something completely unrelated to the subject, specifically involved, the subject of lending money. I’m a trustee of this institution or that institution.” He will say to you, “I’m interested in beauty. Come to my home and I’ll show you beauty. But when it conies to lending, I want to bake them.”

“Why do you want to bake them?”

“I want to bake them because I know that they’ve been baked for twenty-five years and they’ve never failed. The six-story flat is a good thing. You know I don’t work here. I come here without pay. I do not even get a director’s fee for attending a meeting. I’m only here because I think it’s my duty to run this institution.”

Of course he doesn’t add that he enjoys being in association with a lot of other fellows like him who finally got up there, or that he is filling his father’s seat in the chair that his father and his father before him filled. But he says, ‟I’m here and I am going to make sure that this institution doesn’t go broke. I know there’s one thing certain,” he says; “I never can be criticized lor doing what has been done before, 1 can’t be criticized for doing something new, something that was never done before—it might succeed; but the Lord won’t spare me if it doesn’t — and I am not going to take that chance.”

That is the attitude of perhaps 80 to 90 per cent of the trustees of the eleemosynary and mutual institutions that are financing the vast bulk of the construction in this country. Add to that the FHA and its own completely unimaginative and limited scope in thinking and design, which is understandable because they are trying to protect themselves by the most minute specifications against the chicanery of the builder who is only interested in borrowing the most and building for the least. There you have the double hazard, these two, the builder and the banker, on their high stools. And right between them our architecture and design fall flat.

There are exceptions. There are provocative thinkers among the boards of trustees, and every once in a while you will see a great, new thing come out which finally brings us a notch forward and lifts us up because the power of emulation is something that is always with us. But it comes from such a minute number of those who are in control of the purse strings, and is given to that very small percentage of those who would build and who are interested in doing something more progressive and more important, that progress is painfully slow. We are now building new slums for old slums, anachronistic conditions following upon the horrors of years before, so that notwithstanding the billions of dollars that are at our disposal we are still building approximately the same thing that we have had in the years gone by.


THERE is a great and important lesson to be learned from this. And that is, to find out how we can change it. I’m an optimist, perhaps too much of an optimist. I have no doubt that we will pull out of this trough. I have no doubt that this country will take the lead, and I believe that our time will be looked back upon as the beginning of the greatest renaissance in design and construction that has ever been known. To crystallize your thinking and to try to dramatize how sluggishly, how slowly, how foolishly we are traveling down that path which has got all its ways greased and ready for a 50,000 miles a minute move if we can ever organize ourselves to think straight, I draw your attention to the fact that this building industry and the realestate business are the largest business, in terms of dollars employed, of any business in the world. You can talk about automobiles or chemicals or merchandising or anything you want. I say there is more money invested in real estate than in anything else.

You can tell the difference between a 1951 hand iron and a 1949. The difference between a 1951 automobile and a 1929 automobile makes you turn around and look at the one in 1929. You don’t look at the 1951 one. Why? Why is that true of hand irons? Why is it true of automobiles? Why is it true of new products that were invented and never dreamed of before, whether they be radios or television sets or anything else? Every product you can name is the result of research and design, and research in the laboratory of the great companies of America. All the products of Johns Manville, Libby Owens, the metal companies, the air-conditioning concerns, are available to real estate and construction, but the building industry is the only one where the signs of progress are slight and the finished products are cheap in the least flattering sense, less functional yet more costly. Why is it we have not been able to bring housing down in cost? Today a Ford is more beautiful, faster, more functional, much more pleasant to ride in than a Simplex-Crane was in 1915 — the Simplex-Crane that was the most expensive car built at that time. The automobile industry gives us a better car today than the best car of 1915 and for much less money.

You cannot say that about our business. Our business costs more than ever, notwithstanding that it is the heir—and incidentally the heir without pay — of all of the products of the laboratory. Can we blame the architect? Can we blame the builders? Can we blame the financiers? I do not know. Perhaps they are all to blame. Perhaps none. All I can say is that we are reaching the point very rapidly where it is almost impossible to build a building which will pay at all without some form of subsidy. And the FHA is a form of subsidy. And the FHA has accounted for perhaps 80 per cent of the construction in the United States for the past twelve years.

What an indictment of an art, of an industry, and of a phase of finance! There is an answer because there must be. We at Webb & Knapp have tried to seek that answer by developing what we call the Department of Architectural Research. Headed by a brilliant young architect, I. M. Pei, this department works hand in hand with a very active economic-minded organization of real-estate people who are not subsidized by anybody.

Pei and I got together to discuss a program and develop some sort of order of priorities for the more important challenges that exist in the real-estate industry and the architectural profession. It was obvious to me that the scope, however wide, pointed definitely to the multiple-dwelling housing as the first job to tackle. The reason for this was the obvious wastefulness resulting from shortsighted thinking on the part of planners and builders through the all too rapid obsolescence of apartment houses. I knew from firsthand experience that buildings twenty-five to thirty years of age were considered old while at the same time they were structurally sound and had a physical life, of centuries — that the only serious deterioration that takes place in fireproof buildings is in mechanical equipment such as elevators and plumbing. With the small return available from this kind of construction, it was apparent that the income was rarely adequate to write off the structure by conventional depreciation methods and yet leave a satisfactory return on the investment.

Buildings seemed to wear out for two reasons, both cyclical in character. The first reason was economic and the other sociological. As to the former, the good flush times resulting from economic booms made if desirable to have large luxurytype suites. The undcreycle known as depression required the antithesis. Thus in the thirties the owners of buildings found themselves unable to meet the new demand and the would-be tenants could not afford to take the large, luxurious apartments even at drastically reduced rents, for the simple reason of the high cost of maintenance. The other cycle, the sociological one, occurs in every city all over the country irrespective of economic conditions. It is the usual trend of American residences to move from class character to mass character as the “class” moves steadily farther and farther out, partly for snobbish reasons but partly for the sound reason that the encroachment of the commercial aspects of the city on high-grade residences takes place everywhere as cities grow.

This sociological cycle calls for a change in layout and type of building. But our planning is so rigid, so inflexible, that it cannot adjust itself. If you could change the walls around, have greater latitude in expanding or contracting space by adding acoustical wall panels — which are better than walls a foot thick — your building would keep abreast of the market. Families could take more space in good times, less in bad.

Another thing we have to consider is extracting the utmost from the const ruction dollar by bringing together the thinking of the structural, mechanical, air-conditioning, construction engineers with the thinking of the architect before the design is fixed, before the building is baked.

Well, I talked it over with Pei and gave him a rough idea in the form of a sketch of a building with a core for utilities and arms reaching out with apartments on them. He embodied these concepts into a spiral building which we called the Helix.

The result briefly is this. He gets his construction savings through a central mechanical core in which all the utilities, air conditioning, all the pipes for water and heat and electricity, and the elevators are located. All kitchens and bathrooms back up on this core and tap into it.

Structurally speaking, the circle enables you to use radial reinforced concrete wall, structural walls, as against the forest, of girders in the conventional system. You can standardize wall panels, kitchen and bathroom units. On the periphery of the circle you can provide private terraces, 8 x 35 feet, giving every apartment a taste of the outdoors. You get better living space for smaller capital investment and have a building which is more likely to stay 100 per cent occupied over a long term. That, I think, meets the problem.

Webb & Knapp believe that Mr. Pei’s Helix, which is the first fruit of our laboratory, may be a forerunner of a complete change in philosophy toward design of multiple-dwelling construction. And for that reason, and without concerning ourselves with FHA construction thinking, or stuffedshirt banking thinking, or conventional architectural thinking, or art for art’s sake thinking, we are going to try this one out ourselves and take the risk that if is a good idea. Having looked the country over from one end to the other to find the most appropriate site for this new design, we have bought the top of Nob Hill and shall locate the Helix at the very apex of San Francisco. If we are fortunate, it will be a reality in 1953-1954.

We want to prove that research, an intelligent economic approach, and modern assembly methods can produce in the housing industry miracles of progress comparable to t hose in any other industry in the world. And we seek this development through reaching out for a relationship of the closest possible character between ourselves, who are realestate men, builders, and real-estate economists, and you who are architects and designers. And we have no doubt that we are on the right road.