Real State

Which City Are You In? As Housing Starts to Look the Same, It’s Hard to Tell

“They were initially really maligned as the crystallization of pure real estate rationale with architecture that was just tacked on,” said Liz Falletta, an architect and professor of planning and urban design at the University of Southern California. “But we built enough of them so that you could rent them for an affordable price. And now, they’re being celebrated for their midcentury modern design, and there’s a lot of nostalgia for them.”

Brownstones, which now sell for millions in New York City, were also hated in their heyday.

“While they would later be viewed as authentic, contemporaries dismissed brownstones as modern and artificial,” wrote Suleiman Osman, a professor of American studies at George Washington University, in his book “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn.”

“When one has seen one house, he has seen them all,” one critic, quoted in Mr. Osman’s book, wrote about brownstones in the 1800s.

As with brownstones and dingbats, distaste can dissolve with time.

“A lot of people’s lives will have been lived in them, 20, 30, 40 years from now. In their role as housing and much-needed housing, people might look back on them more positively,” Ms. Falletta said of today’s buildings. “They may not be valorized as good design, but people’s attitudes will change.”

At the end of 2020, the nation was short 3.8 million units of housing, according to Freddie Mac. Multifamily buildings, despite their aesthetic shortcomings, can close that gap far quicker and cheaper than, say, brownstones or bungalows.

Critics agree that more housing is positive, but they also feel that the current construction misses an opportunity.

“Getting housing built is more important than nit-picking over aesthetics,” said Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and the creator of the “McMansion Hell” blog, “but there is definitely room within the housing to improve aesthetics.”


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