Governance, aesthetics and architecture

I have been meaning to write up a few thoughts that came out of a beer-fueled conversation with a friend some weeks ago. We both lived in Austin, TX for some time during the 1990s and now have both lived in Chicago for all of the 21st century thus far. The discussion was about the architectural transition that has taken place over the last decade plus in Austin.

Our conversation began with my friend noting how depressing the bad architecture explosion was in Austin. Now, it needs noting that Austin has seen a population explosion that I might guess is one of the biggest in the nation over the last decade or so. In 1990 Austin's population was around 500,000. Today it is around 850,000. That is population growth of 70% over the period, or almost 6% per year on average. This is more in the ballpark of the growth of urban areas in China than of urban growth in the US. So obviously some things had to be built. Over the same 13 years the average price of housing has (by my own informal observations) increased by about fivefold. So, according to basic principals of supply and demand, tall buildings are a good use of space as land increases in price and population grows. Until I began writing this, had it in my mind that there was some fairly onerous building code height restrictions in Austin in the past that had someone to do with the UT tower, perhaps based on a story I heard about some big fight over the Dobie dormitory a few blocks away. However, that story may have been apocryphal based on a web search and I can't find anything about maximum height restrictions more generally either (Austin has a somewhat controversial McMansion ordinance from 2008 but this concerns maximum non-permeable cover on residential lots and such things). Readers, please correct me if I am wrong on this. As a side note, for a taste of the problems these sorts of restrictions can pose to affordable housing in particular, consider the cost of housing in Washington DC over the last decade and also read about the cautionary tale of Boulder, CO, which has stringent restrictions on both height and sprawl.

So, let's just say that some tall buildings are gonna get built. Tall buildings have the perhaps unfortunate feature that their pulchritude, or the lack thereof, travels much further than that of low buildings. An ugly skyscraper is ugly from really far away. A one-story building is only ugly from right in front of it. And it is fair to say that Austin's skyline is not terribly distinguished. Perhaps the most emblematic building is the Frost Bank tower (in the middle in the picture below), which looks like the improbable headquarters of some superhero's corporate alter ego in a Marvel Comics movie.

While I may disagree about the extent of the badness my friend was bemoaning overall, I will concede that, from the vantage point of Chicago (picture credit)…

It is a reasonable critique. But it got me to thinking about some of the main differences between Chicago and Austin at the level of why what gets built gets built. And it seemed to me that Austin's rather hodge-podge-y skyline is reflective of the fairly anonymous and pluralistic sort of governance that takes place there, while the skyline of Chicago, bristling as it does with world-class works of architecture, rather reflects the autocratic and undemocratic form of governance here.

Perhaps most to the point, since 1955 Austin has had 15 mayors and the longest serving among them (I think three total) served maximum terms of six years. On the other hand, Chicago has had 5 mayors in this 58 year period and the two Richard Daleys account for 43 years (or nearly three quarters) of it. While Chicago technically has a “weak mayor” form of governance (though this is something I have just read, I don't really understand the mechanics of this assertion), we have de facto mayoral control over virtually all things beyond the ward level, and even there, the mayor can make things happen by hook or by crook, particularly the Daleys. In fact, the Balkanized Ward system is a key to assuring the mayor an easy route to policy dominance. Just divide and conquer. It is even easier with TIFs now.

Austin on the other hand has a new mayor virtually every term and there is no political dynasty of any sort, period. The city also has a city council elected on an at-large basis, so council members have to satisfy every voter in the city to some degree. While I am rusty on current Austin politics, the city manager is perhaps the most powerful policy maker in some ways as they typically have a tenure of several years, at least in recent decades. Overall, there are puh-lenty of people who will animatedly criticize city government. Austin, but the crazy thing is that some of them, such as long-time journalist-city-council-gadfly-turned-city-council-member Daryl Slusher, end up serving in it, while many others actually accomplish meaningful reforms through their agitation before the council.

So my argument was that in a city like Austin, even assuming that some majority of the mayor and city council think a proposed building is ugly or garish, if some builder does everything according to city ordinances and follows all the rules, they can build a butt-ugly building because essentially Austin is a well-functioning government. On the other hand, in the Daleys' Chicago if the mayor especially didn't like a proposed building, it is safe to say that it would not get built. I may lack documented examples of this, but to extrapolate from the contrapositive, consider the building of the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago (my alma mater) under the guiding hand of Richard J, the elder.

Undergraduate Center to a full-fledged four-year institution. After a long and controversial site decision process, in 1961, Mayor Daley offered the Harrison and Halsted Streets site for the new campus…In a report on August 28, 2008, by newsman Derrick Blakely, CBS TV reported that in 1963, the decision to build the University of Illinois decimated Taylor Street's little Italy. Florence Scala, Chicago’s legendary Taylor Street activist and long time Hull House cohort, blamed the board of directors of Hull House for betraying the thriving, vibrant, tight knit neighborhood. They encouraged Daley to go ahead and destroy the neighborhood. Her challenge as to why the Hull House neighborhood and not the vacated and easily accessible Dearborn Station resulted in the bombing of her home. In addition on November 10, 2003, WTTW Irv Kupcinet related a story about Mayor Richard J. Daley asking him what he thought was his most crowning achievement. Daley answered “Putting the school in the Italian neighborhood.” Meaning the old Taylor Street neighborhood being condemned to make way for the Chicago Circle Campus. Today, the University's main academic library is named for Daley.

The man who mowed down an entire neighborhood to build a highly controversial, brutalist, university campus could be expected to have no big problems making a zoning problem arise or a downpour of bureaucratic hold ups appear for a disfavored project. And hiring world-class architects to design news-making buildings was probably a good way to assure that your building was smiled upon by the ruler.

Millennium Park is a case study for Richard M Daley's ample “juice”. The park, featuring a Frank Gehry designed centerpiece concert performance space, was completed four years behind schedule (or 996 years early as the saying often goes in Chicago) and for over three times the original budget, ending up at $475 million from a $150 million starting price tag. As the cost overruns mounted, the mayor also came up with an astonishing amount of suddenly willing private donors to keep the city's portion of the overruns to only $120 million. Try that Lee Leffingwell!

It may be that the price of good governance is potentially mediocre architecture. Though Chicago is still getting some pretty noteworthy buildings like the Aqua Tower from time to time, the days of Mies and friends are most likely over. So carry on Austin. For a city dealing with profound runaway growth, I think the relatively earnest work of the short-lived and anonymous politicians of Austin is going reasonably well.

(Full disclosure: Your author has a history of having a fairly congenial view of Austin, though he would argue that it is an eminently supportable position under cross-examination.)



About theunlikelyeconomist

theunlikelyeconomist is in the midst of the long slog to attain a PhD in economics.
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2 Responses to Governance, aesthetics and architecture

  1. Nick says:

    Jason, so Austin does have height restrictions. There’s a “rampdown” in height as you get away from the Central Business District, where there are no real height restrictions, to 90 feet, then to 60 feet. So outside the CBD, say on S.Lamar, the max height is 60 feet. However, almost every developer seeks a variance, which City Council has the sole authority to grant…which they almost always do, despite the fact that the codes require certain things. So the “democracy” you think is present here is not really that transparent. It might get better next year, when City Council becomes district-based rather than all at-large. That change, which was put to referendum, was actually opposed by every current City Council member, because ironically they all live within a 3-mile radius of one another.

    • Nick,

      Thanks for that. My characterization of the goodness of Austin government is, of course, relative. I think it holds up with Chicago as a benchmark. I think the city is in a quandary though in terms of the great need for affordable housing (not that big condo developers typically make affordable housing but maybe posh condos reduce the pressure to tear down more modest housing for McMansion-y things?), and tall buildings are probably the least bad solution versus more low-height sprawl. As far as it goes, I’m not sure that district based representation is that great if Chicago is any indication. I think in Austin in particular, it may bring out ever worse NIMBY-ism and push all less desirable development, infrastructure, etc. to the parts of the city with the least engaged constituents as happens invarisbly in Chicago. Please tell me what you think.

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