Detlef Mertins on the Future of the Housing Industry

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I knew Detlef Mertins from his Toronto years; he graduated a few years after I did but quickly established himself as an academic star, going on to become Chair of the Architecture Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He died on January 14; the Dean of the School of Design writes:

Detlef's contributions to our school, to us collectively and individually, and to the fields of architecture history and theory are of immense and lasting value. The loss of his presence among us is immeasurable and, at this moment, impossible to grasp.

He was interviewed for Archinect in 2006 and had this to say about the future of the housing industry:
Do you think that this retreat from development is actually to blame, in many ways, for what we now see as the American vernacular landscape - vinyl siding, McMansions, and so on?

That's a huge issue. I don't think architecture has ever made an inroad into suburban housing. It did into public housing, and it does a little bit today in the realm of condominium design. It's something that preoccupied people at mid-century, like Buckminster Fuller. Fuller invented the Dymaxion House hoping that it could be generalized and mass-produced, like Ford automobiles. It never happened. Why?

I think the issue, in some ways, is endemic to the development industry. By and large, developers don't hire architects who would be innovative; they rely on established markets that they continue to perpetuate, rather than looking for real innovation. Relative to other sectors of the economy, housing is a fragmented industry still, perhaps less able to produce large-scale change. Then again, America's car industry has fallen behind its international competitors, too - so perhaps there's an issue of complacency there. But innovation in housing is back on the agenda, I think. There's a resurgence of interest among architects in manufactured housing, and there are advances in mass customization and integrated manufacturing - so there may be a way in which architects are, today, becoming more engaged with this question than they have been for some time - and they're doing so, once again, at a moment of broad technological change.

Let's hope developers and the financial industry will be more responsive this time! That was one of the problems for Buckminster Fuller: he didn't attract a lot of capital.

Read Design in the World: An Interview with Detlef Mertins

RIP, Detlef Mertins

Tags: Architects | Toronto