May 1, 2004
I Am the Uncool Hunter
Do “factory-like” subdivisions spell the end of the loft as a meaningful cultural symbol?
In my fantasy life I am Cayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s most recent novel, Pattern Recognition. She is a cool hunter, hired by clients to research street culture in search of the next trend. “She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backward,” Gibson writes. “She’s that good.” Cayce is also so sensitive to the invisible signals given off by commercial culture that certain trademarks—the Michelin Man, for example—make her sick.
In reality I am the uncool hunter. My talent is discovering the places where hipness goes to die. I drive around the country and stumble on phenomena that make me realize that something I once valued is about to be eaten alive by mindless commerce. In my own way I’m as sensitive as Cayce Pollard. When, for example, I hear Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” used to advertise Carnival Cruise Lines, I too feel queasy.
Several months ago I found myself in Frederick, Colorado, one of those featureless expanses of dust that fills with tract houses simply because—traffic permitting—it’s a 30-minute drive to Denver. There I came face to face with the demise of the loft as a meaningful cultural icon. Not that I was surprised. The commercialization of the loft, the abandoned warehouses and factories that afforded artists dirt-cheap square footage, perfect for the painting of epic canvases—that happened a long time ago. Old industrial buildings became prime real estate. Then developers in cities without a large enough inventory of mills and plants ripe for conversion—Houston, for example—began building “loft” complexes from scratch, complete with exposed ducts and heroic girders. But at least these industrially inspired buildings were true to the urban nature of more authentic lofts.
Three years ago I started seeing lofts as the contemporary answer to the ranch house. It seemed that the popularity of the ranch house in the 1950s and ’60s suggested a nostalgia for a lost lifestyle, a longing for the atavistic cowboy. The loft is also about nostalgia: it is a monument to the disappearance of industry. As factories migrate to Mexico or China, the factory worker becomes a romantic figure from a bygone era just like the cowboy.
Around that same time I’d occasionally give Modernism pep talks to gatherings of home builders and pose this question: What happens when loft dwellers fall in love, get married, and have babies? Some families with children do embrace the loft lifestyle, but others go out and try to find a suburban house with space for the children that still exudes their nontraditional values. What does the housing industry provide for them?
I got my answer last summer, when I wound up in Frederick, drawn there by an ad I saw in a glossy real estate advertising magazine called Homes and Land of Boulder County. The developer, Cornerstone Homes, had several pages promoting Ironworks Lofts, a community of “stand-alone” loft homes, single-family subdivision houses tricked out in industrial brick and steel with names like the Firehouse and the Cannery.
I talked my friend Mark Sofield into going for a drive. Mark is the town designer of Prospect, a New Urbanist subdivision in nearby Longmont that features the bravest mix of modern and traditional housing anywhere—including multifamily loft buildings and single-family homes that could easily be marketed as stand-alone lofts. He felt an obligation to see what the competition was doing, so we drove to Frederick along relentlessly straight highways distinguished by an unending string of billboards pointing the way to myriad model homes and sales offices. Eventually we arrived in a grove of faux factories.
I was so bowled over by the strangeness of the place that all I could do was gape. On one corner, surrounded by nothing, was the Steam Plant, a low brick building dominated, as are so many subdivision houses, by a twin garage (which, given the look of the building, appeared to be a truck entrance). In the background were the more typical beige tract houses that cover much of the greater Denver area. I looked inside another one—maybe it was the Cannery—and took note of the 24-foot ceilings supported by steel trusses. Very weird. Then I told myself that these buildings are exactly as industrial as a more typical subdivision’s “Tuscan villas” are Italian. Maybe this isn’t weird—maybe it’s exceptionally normal.
Recently I caught up with Dean Thedos, self-described “head of crazy-idea development” for Cornerstone Homes. He’s the brains behind Ironworks Lofts. He says the goal was to make a less “exclusionary” version of the urban loft. The loft, he says, “has been in locations that have been fairly inhospitable except to a small segment of the population.” He’s talking about cities.
“It’s hard to go shopping for groceries,” Thedos argues. “It’s hard to have friends visit and park their cars. You make a lot of trade-offs. Why can’t we evolve this into a form that’s more accessible? Let’s morph it into something that anybody who wants to can live in and not have to trade off their garage and fenceable yard in a location where shopping is proximate and there are multiple bedrooms for children.” Funny: what Thedos is describing is the idea I was arguing for a few years ago. But now that it’s real, it feels like parody.
Sofield has given a lot of thought to what housing types make sense in Colorado. Initially he was as confused by the Ironworks Lofts as I was. But recently he looked at the Web site of the architect, a company called Terra Verde (“Design that Rocks”), and felt pangs of sympathy: “Why not? There’s no frame of reference out here.”
Thedos claims there is a frame of reference. “Interestingly enough,” he says, “in turn-of-the-century Colorado some of these mining towns—which is what Frederick used to be—were filled with boxy brick structures. The forms were eerily similar.” Actually there’s even more context. At the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas last January the official show home was called “the Loft,” a freestanding 5,180-square-foot concrete box featuring a combined kitchen and dining area, a media room with a big screen and a pair of immense lounge chairs, a loft office, a wine cellar, an outdoor tub, and—perhaps as a nod to loft heritage—an art gallery. It seemed both an endorsement by the conservative home-building industry of modern design and also an acknowledgment that today’s home buyers—like the original loft dwellers—have an insatiable appetite for square footage.
The lesson here is that when you argue for stylistic change and that change eventually comes, it turns out that style is beside the point. The New Urbanists, for example, used bungalow style to sell their antisprawl principles. As a result the bungalow has become popular among conventional developers, who somehow missed the part about principle. Likewise, as commercial builders embrace a loft aesthetic, the fact that lofts were a way of reviving disused urban neighborhoods falls by the wayside. So here’s a tip from the Uncool Hunter’s Manual: the point where style is pried loose from any semblance of meaning is a good place to seek out the uncool.