Creativity in Making the Built Environment

Creativity in Making the Built Environment

I bet when you saw the title of this piece you thought “Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum” or “Frank Lloyd Wright,” or maybe examples of innovative urban design, past and present, such as Garden Cities, New Urbanism, and Smart Cities. What probably didn’t come to mind was Levittown or your latest home improvement project. But they should: creativity is democratic.

Figure 1. A creative, probably amateur, adaptation of a “little box” in Levittown, Long Island, New York, 2014. Photograph by Matthew Gordon Lasner.

True, everyday, or “vernacular,” creativity is rarely striking or impressive. It often sacrifices aesthetics in the name of function and cost. The result can indeed be the sorts of unpretentious “little boxes” that, in some quarters, inspired derision in the 1950s. But boxes, too, required new thinking, whether they took the form of the house kits that Aladdin, Sears, and other companies sold by mail, or the frame bungalows that the Levitts built on Long Island. Both delighted tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of buyers. After all, innovations such as galley, “apartment,” and then “living” kitchens opening out to a dining area served their purposes and enabled new forms of domestic life. Indeed Aladdin and its ilk, with their mail-order catalogs, and the Levitts, with their lumber dealerships and their coordinated teams of tradesmen, were great innovators in other ways: in marketing, production, and finance. Creativity can lie in the process, not just the outcome.

Figure 2. Trade journals worked hard to educate building suppliers about how to handle the postwar influx of home handy-men and –women. Source: Building Supply News 71, no. 4 (April 1946).

And we can go further still. Sears and the Levitts, contrary to stereotype, actually employed architects, or at least trained draftsmen and women. But, in the past, plenty of dwellings were built by people who were amateurs, in the sense of having few or no construction skills, in America as elsewhere. Many still are. Often, people have designed and erected their own homes, whether because they couldn’t afford a kit, because they had idiosyncratic ideas or peculiar needs, or because they needed to buy materials and build in stages as their finances permitted and without going into debt.

Making, and remaking, the ordinary built environment involves innumerable creative acts.

And then, as scholars like Barbara M. Kelly and Barbara Miller Lane have shown, many people have exercised some creativity in altering or extending their homes to suit their needs, which is precisely what the buyers of Levitt’s cookie-cutter homes soon proceeded to do. Homebuyers, quite possibly you, if you are lucky enough to be a homeowner, still do this. For every homeowner who has employed a professional architect, renovator, or contractor, there are probably a score or more who have taken on non-trivial projects by themselves, perhaps with the help of family or friends.

Figure 3. The Turtles’ owner-built garage in Fairfield, outside Sydney, Australia, 1952. Source: Laurie Turtle.

As I show in Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960, recognizing this business opportunity, a major home repair industry has grown up since the late 1940s to cater to this demand. This required a twofold change in mindset. First, building suppliers, accustomed to dealing with contractors and tradesmen in a rough-and-ready manner, had to learn how to cater to amateur home handymen. Second, and even more challenging, they had to handle handywomen, who had higher expectations about the importance of clean, well-organized displays, not to mention personal demeanor and attire. A real culture shock.

Figure 4. A Primus camping stove.

Good examples of everyday creativity have recently been provided by Nicola Pullan in her study of the pioneers of the early postwar suburbs of Sydney, Australia. She reports that one family, the Turtles, started by buying a double lot and occupying a garage that their neighbors had built. At first, that is where they slept and cooked. They bathed in a galvanized wash-tub in water that had been heated on a Primus stove. Soon, they completed a “part-house,” occupied in 1954, and then spread slowly into a series of extensions, the last being finished in 1964. I have found many similar stories of the process of owner-building around North American cities in the same period. Here was creativity not only in design and construction but also in the use of materials and space.

In recent decades, the most striking, expansive—and discussed—examples of amateur construction have been the informal settlements of the Global South. Famously, more than half a century ago, John Turner, a British architect, praised the resourcefulness of such owner-builders, holding them up as inspirations for international development agencies. Recently, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena earned a Pritzker Prize, in part for designing and building “half of a good house” that occupants could finish. The idea was that each household could create an interior that suited its tastes, needs and, above all, funds.

Figure 5. How the Turtles’ house grew. Source: Laurie Turtle, 2016.

I do not wish to take anything away from the real social concerns and achievements, not to mention the plain common sense, of either Turner or Aravena. In different ways both performed a valuable service in recognizing what amateurs can accomplish. But there is an obvious irony here. One architect is celebrated for drawing attention to what Peruvian rural-urban migrants were already doing. Another is recognized for an idea, “shells,” that, as Carolyn Loeb has shown, hard-nosed developer B.E. Taylor sold to hundreds of eager buyers in Detroit in the 1920s. As I have written, commercial builders marketed variations on this product across the United States in the early postwar years.  Ingenious amateurs and entrepreneurs—each responding inventively to available funds, materials, needs, site, and market conditions—, and even the dwellings that they assembled or finished, are too easily lost from view.

Making, and remaking, the ordinary built environment involves innumerable creative acts. Most apparent are the design and selection of materials. Behind these lie the various crafts of construction, as well as marketing, land development, finance and—as any developer can attest—local politics. At some point, almost everyone is involved in one or more of these activities. When we look at the urban landscape we need to see it as the outcome of a democratic process.

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