Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Cities are becoming chock-a-block with blocky-looking buildings.
When the story of the Teens is set down in stone, the section on how people lived will include plenty of shudder-worthy chapter headings: crop-tops, selfie sticks, sharing plates small and large. But the portion on housing in the 2010s will have just two factors: stacked and elevated.
The “Jengaform” look of recovery-era multifamily architecture is everywhere. New York is chock-a-block with blocky-looking buildings. New designs for San Francisco, Washington, D.C., even Skid Row in Los Angeles have all followed suit. Late Obama-era architecture puts the part before the whole.
A modest new project for the District of Columbia is a stellar example. It’s designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, and it’s planned as a replacement for a small gas station in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Given the tiny footprint, the city’s strict height regulations, and the neighborhood’s historic NIMBYism, it was never destined to be an extravagant tower. But Souto de Moura delivered on the design.
While it’s not going over well with residents and bloggers, it’s a design that does the most with the least. The heated residential market in D.C. means there is simply no playing with form: Every square foot on a new parcel must be maximized. For a city with a height limit mandated by Congress, that means squat, square buildings. If Souto de Moura gets his way—if the building isn’t value-engineered down with cheaper materials—it could turn out to be a gem.
Nearby in D.C., developer Eastbanc has invited another prestigious firm to design a different, larger, multifamily development. Mexico City’s Ten Arquitectos came through with another Jengaform project for West End.
It goes without saying that Jengaform isn’t exclusively a District thing. Stacked architecture makes sense for the city because so many of the development opportunities are infill, and architects can get more out of a small building footprint using various tricky cantilevers. And when construction is as expensive as it is in D.C. or New York, developers tend to dispense with the showy curves.
Jengaform’s spirit animal may be 56 Leonard in New York. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, another Pritzker Prize-winning firm, the haphazard-looking tower looked all but impossible to build when the renderings first appeared. Ongoing construction at 56 Leonard proves, however, that the design is quite realizable.
Not all of the blocky buildings of the recovery look so Container Store-esque as the projects being pumped out in New York by ODA Architecture. A new residential project in San Francisco, 8 Octavia, looks sleek and stately by comparison. While Stanley Saitowitz, the building’s designer, eschews the cantilever, he puts units forward through orderly stacks and big volumes. (A different project by Saitowitz’s firm, Natoma Architects, emphasizes the unit even more directly.)
John King, architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, calls 8 Octavia the city’s “most highly anticipated residential building so far this decade”:
Except for three storefronts, almost the entire surface of the building is a gauzy quilt of vertical louvers, 9 feet tall and 12 inches wide. Each 18-foot bundle of louvers moves in unison at the whim of the resident inside—pivoting open or shut to filter sunlight and boulevard noise—so the effect is that of a constantly shifting pattern of soft teal squares. But if the look has an abstract sheen, the structure itself is grounded.
Along Octavia, the 270-foot-long wall is split into manageable sections by three deep cuts—one from below, two from above—that are 21st century updates of the light wells that shaped large buildings a century ago. At Market, the prow narrows to a sliced edge, marking the spot with louver-draped glass on all three sides.
Think: voyeuristic flatiron.
In another story, King breaks down the difference between buildings that look like a pile of modular units and buildings that just look square. He put out the idea of “neighborliness” as the difference between buildings that demand attention and buildings that follow boilerplate.
Is Jengaform architecture very neighborly? Blocky design is even a defining characteristic of the finalized World Trade Center complex. It’s not going anywhere. The worry is that unexpected cantilevers and unit-first buildings will come to look monotonous: a new boilerplate. The hope is that architects will keep adapting this very rational approach to building to keep cities looking good.