Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Life at the BreakWater

I finally got a chance to look at the BreakWater "debate", which Cassie was kind enough to post. The whole discussion strikes me as an exercise in the arbitrary - on both sides. Renner (the architect) against the architectural critics - what a grand battle! Or is it? Both sides seem to agree that architecture is just a matter of opinion, and each side offers its opinion with no substantive reasons. The architectural critics bash the BreakWater for its allegedly bad connotations: an institution, a McManson. Scandalous! Renner bashes the critics for being Modernists and intellectuals. Thinking too much? - you should be ashamed! But wait. Why are institutions and McMansons bad? Why is Modernism or intellectual inquiry bad? Nobody in this discussion says. I think McMansons and Modernism are bad, but I find the whole discussion pointless because it is filled with Post-Modern subjectivism - a battle of whims and a battle over public influence. Rather than providing clear reasons that might elucidate some truth, both sides seem more concerned with molding public opinion.

More relevant questions: What does the BreakWater mean? What convictions does it express? What kind of life does it promise those who purchase condos there? These are not esoteric questions for architectural theorists to ponder in the classroom, detached from any relevance in everyday life. These questions are simultaneously theoretical and practical. They are desperately important questions, to which every customer of the BreakWater needs real answers. In that spirit:

Comfortable rather than Beautiful

Renner clearly states his intention to make a place that is comfortable for its residents, rather than visually appealing. He wanted to give people entertainment centers, well-equipped kitchens and spacious decks. He values the simple pleasures of ordinary life, rather than the sophisticated delights of the refined life.

Generic rather than Distinctive

Every unit here is basically the same, a fact broadcasted loudly on the exterior by the relentlessly repetitious balconies. Everybody gets exactly the same balcony. Everybody gets basically the same interior living spaces, as well. The conviction expressed is that we are more alike than different. The things that make us distinctive - our individual personalities - are not really relevant. In design we can safely filter that out of consideration. One size fits all.

The same conviction can be seen in the treatment of the structure, enclosure and form of the building. The driving desire is for conformity to an established model, rather than exploration of something new. It is more important to reinforce convention than to deviate from it. We should not question too much (if at all) the way things are normally done. It is crucially important in life to be normal, that is, to be like everybody else.

Money-making rather than Landmark-making

Renner is probably right that the BreakWater will make money for its developer, and maybe also for its residents. According to Renner's own statements making money for his clients is clearly one of his driving intentions. Conversely, he does not even mention such things as pride of ownership. So he conveys to us the conviction that what is most important in life is getting a return-on-investment, rather than garnering rich and meaningful human experiences.

Renner's Ideal

So what is the kind of person who would thrive inhabiting a condo at the BreakWater? It is a person who values physical comfort above beauty, a person without a strong sense of personal identity, and a person who pursues the acquisition of monetary wealth over emotional fulfillment. These are all characteristics of the materialist. Everything Renner says in the debate reveals that he is an extreme materialist, and he has succeeded in giving us a building that embodies his view of the world.

Anyone who purchased a condo at the BreakWater and does not hold these convictions is a poor fool - a sucker who was duped into buying something that stands for everything he hates. That is the real crime here - not that the BreakWater exists - after all, it is an expression of the values of the architect and the client (i.e., the developer), as it should be. The crime is that many of the customers who purchase condos here, now and in the future, are supporting the propagation of convictions they actually consider destructive. If these convictions were identified, as I've tried to do here, those same enthusiastic buyers would run away from the BreakWater with a sick stomach. Ignorance of the meaning and significance of architecture renders people helpless against buildings like the BreakWater, which I actually don't think expresses the convictions of many people.

In an enlightened society the developers (who own the land) have every right to pay to hire an architect of their choosing and construct a building that expresses whatever values they choose. And in an enlightened society, people have every right to buy homes elsewhere, and to watch the BreakWater rot. The fact that the BreakWater is sold-out indicates that either we live in a society with a large number of materialists, or we live in a society with a large number of unenlightened persons, who don't know what the ugly face of materialism looks like. I believe the latter is true.

Postscript: I wanted to clarify a couple points related to the issue of making money through architecture. In this post it might seem like I'm against profiting from architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth. I question two aspects of Renner's mode of business operation. First, his premise that the way to "make money" for your client is to design an ugly, minimalist box. Notice that Renner never even asks the real Capitalistic question: how much money can I make? Is 0.0001% profit really okay? Certainly not. The goal of every good Capitalist is not to merely make a profit, but to maximize profit. The reality is that minimal solutions never maximize profit. People want more (if given the option), and they deserve to have more. Second, I question the process in which customers buy homes in complete ignorance of the convictions embodied there. It is wrong to sell people a chocolate bunny that's really made out of poop. No architect can be considered an honest businessman when he pursues profit by pulling the wool over people's eyes - obscuring issues of conviction and way-of-life under the disguise of "functionality" or "resale value". Architects have a responsibility to help their customers understand the significance of a place, so the client can make an informed decision.


  1. Kyle, your analysis is interesting. I've been thinking about this issue for the last couple of days and have some issues that I haven.t resolved yet.

    So what's the big deal here?

    We've identified that Renner designed a building that meshes with his world view. Renner's whole plan is set in place to make a profit [i guess this could be described as the goal]. The Breakwater is a collection of condos that is probably going to make himself and the developer a whole bunch of money [if past projects are of any measure]. The residents might even make some money down the road if they ever decide to sell. The question I have is 'who gets to decide what's the best way to maximize profit.' In the context of this project, another way to look at it would be to maximize the goal. To Renner, he is maximizing profit, by putting up a minimalist box with huge decks hung off the side. He is supposedly giving his clients everything they want and nothing more. In this light he is an architect in name only, a better title might be 'CAD Bitch'.

    Under his set of assumptions, which are probably as steadfast as the Hoover Dam, adding 'more' never equates to 'getting more'. Whats worse is that these assumptions rarely get challenged, as is evident when viewing previous projects of his. Is Renner being a bad capitalist by not giving his clients the most they deserve? What is the most someone can be given and who decides when this amount is sufficient? Is something being 'good enough' the worst of all possible lenses through which to look? It seems like this is all relative to what other capitalists are producing.

    In his mind, he is giving his clients 'more' than they had before. This should be good enough, right? I don' think that Renner is pulling the wool over anybody's eyes. A quick run-through of his website thoroughly describes his convictions. He puts it all out there for everybody to see. Do these not qualify as legitimate? Renner's buildings are available for anybody who has the money to move in. What is his responsibility here? It seems like hes being pretty open...

    Does he hold any other beliefs about what a building should be or do? Are his true convictions of place overshadowed by his desire to make more money, and how do we seperate these things? Traditionally he categorizes this sort of progressive thinking as garbage. He sells himself more or less as a non-intellectual. How much are consumers at fault here? It seems like all the facts are available to them.

  2. Andrew asks: "The question I have is, Who gets to decide what's the best way to maximize profit?" The answer is that in a free society each individual is in control of his own money, and he chooses what to buy by assessing the relative value to him of all his available options. He chooses the option he deems best for him according to his own judgment, and each individual does the same. A business profits in proportion to the number of customers that evaluate its product as superior to others offered for sale.

    So no business gets to decide the best way to maximize profit - the standard of profit-making is inherent in the nature of a free economy: The best way to maximize profit is to satisfy the greatest number of customers better than your competitors.

    Incidently, this reveals one of the fallacies of socialism - which is that the profit-motive is "greedy" and "anti-social" and "anti-customer". In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The profit motive is what ensures that a free economy remains benevolent - "the customer is always right" is the essence of a free economy. Businesses profit to the extent they serve the needs, desires and expectations of customers, not to the extent they manipulate or cheat them. Cheating might increase profits in the short-run (so long as it can be concealed), but in the long-run it leads to the destruction of a business's reputation, which dooms it. (Notice that the same is true for an individual who turns away from honest work to become a thief or con-artist.)

    Businesses don't manipulate people into wanting things (another socialist view). Quite the opposite: businesses are one of the most profound reflections of the values of a culture. This is what makes the typical real estate developer so disturbing. That such a typically superficial, crass, and materialistic person can thrive so well in business reflects poorly on the customers he serves, who are the ones making him rich. Renner is really just one of these greasy guys.

    Now, the crucial aspect of the profit system that we should keep in mind is the part about customers choosing the best option OF THOSE AVAILABLE TO THEM. This is where we come in. Architects like Renner can only thrive so long as designers don't step forward and offer customers a better alternative. Notice that as soon as somebody does this, the emptiness of Renner's approach becomes obvious, and he has no leg to stand on. What if a potential buyer of one of Renner's condos asked him, "Well, I'm considering buying a unit at BreakWater, but I'm also considering a condo at Buena Vista (a well-designed alternative). I'm interested in making money on the property some day, but I intend to live there for some time, and I obviously want the best quality of life I can afford. How will the BreakWater provide me with a better quality of life than Buena Vista?" Now Renner actually has to persuade people that his building is better, and vague elusions to profitability are not going to be enough. What can Renner really say? Well, BreakWater has big decks and big kitchens. Is that his competitive advantage? How easy would it be to go beyond that in the design of Buena Vista? Pretty easy. The minimal nature of Renner's design would quickly become apparent next to a non-minimal design. But where are such designs to be found in Milwaukee today?

    If only it was that easy. The challenge is much harder, I am afraid to say, since it is not the condo buyer who must be initially persuaded - it is the real estate developer. And here is where designers get stonewalled. Real estate developers are generally materialists who are highly skeptical of anyone who suggests that making something that appeals to people's MINDS might be profitable. The "mind" is a cloudy fantasy to the developer, far less reliable than statistics and demographics and square footage calculations. To them, "quality of life" is the touchy-feely nonesense of grandmothers, flaky artists and the weak-minded. Serious businessmen deal with numbers.

    Here we can see how a breach of mind and body leads to so many other breaches characteristic of modern thought: art and business, qualitiative and quantitative, emotion and reason. In all these polarities, architectural design falls to the left and real estate development falls to the right, at least in the thinking of such real estate developers. It is hard to bridge this ideological chasm.


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