Bigger, but not Better
I once had a book i loved as a kid titled "The Little House" It was simply a tale about a house built in the pre-industrial era, lived through several generations while witnessing the birth of the modern city, and how its livelihood was suffocated by the ever increasing size of its neighboring buildings (as well as crime and pollution). I won't spoil what the ending is here.
Walking through my neighborhood in Chicago twice a day, I reflect back on that book, and how it is a relevant outlook on the current urban building trends and policies. Though it is common in Chicago and most bigger cities these days to present some form of gentrification, I am mostly concerned with the scale of newer development driven projects within their local urban fabric. For instance, why are we building so much bigger than we did 100 years ago? Is it because we have grown larger as a species? Or is it simply the trend to build bigger? When you have money, do you need to spend it on larger houses for status, or is it to enrich your living experience? In a short architectural pictorial discourse, I go over what makes a building fit in, and why bigger is not necessarily better in terms of residential architecture.
The picture above is a common sight in my neighborhood over the past 5 years. Sort of a top income gentrification inside of a traditional and working class style neighborhood. I'm not disagreeing with contemporary or modern design styles vs. old (as you will read further down), however, I am in disagreement with the scale of these newer houses. My guess is that these urban mansions are around 2500 sf without basement. Compared to a similarly sized 3 flat built 100 years ago in the same area, which is around 3500 sf. The difference is one family gets 2500 sf to themselves, while 3 families divide up the 3500 sf. Though the new house is obviously built for a person with wealth, why such large interior spaces, or exterior facades?
To me, it looks like today we are designing for giants as our clients. Most of the floor to ceiling heights in newer high end houses are in the 11' - 12' range, which is 4' more than the traditional ceiling height in Chicago flats. Why do we really need that much head room? Does it really enhance our perception of the space, or the quality of the space itself? I would argue that for a home, a more cozy and intimate space is more desirable. A place where you can sit down and relax after the day, curl up on the couch with your pets, and have a fire going. That's not to say you can't have that environment in a bigger volume space, but there is certainly something about the psyche of an intimate space that fits the human being's dimensions better. Being inside a modern large house with one size room everywhere, you miss that opportunity for any cozy feeling inside. Its all monotonous, and leaves you feeling a little agoraphobic being a small person in a large space.
Though bigger is not better, newer is not necessarily worse. I think that some contemporary houses get it. They fit in with the existing neighborhood, aren't flaunting wealth in peoples faces, and maintain a uniformity in the streetscape that makes the view pleasant. The examples below are from the same neighborhood in Ukrainian Village, and they do a good job of blending in with the urban environment.
In certain streets the tipping point of big vs. little is decently mixed, but these streets lack any real cohesion in their grouping. Though these newer streets may be scaled to a human more accurately, there is a certain charm missing without the smaller more approachable 2 flats that dot the Chicago landscape.
In the end, it comes down to what kind of space do you want to live in, both inside and outside. Do we ask ourselves as designers to make a house fit, or are we simply cramming volume into a space for a status symbol? Like the little house that was eventually crowded out by its big brothers, how will we respond to an ever increasing size of our homes? I think it all comes with careful and sensible attention to the urban landscape and our communities.