If you haven’t noticed these buildings all across Ann Arbor, then you just haven’t been paying attention. Each and every one of the buildings follows almost the exact same design formula and they are clustered in two locations: just south of the Diag and just north of it. These buildings go by their “slick” and corporate market research names: Six11, ArborBlu, Landmark, Zaragon, Foundry, Varsity and YOUnion.
The similarities between the buildings is striking, to say the least. To start our exploration, let's begin by examining the outsides. As I see it, all of the exteriors share three central design elements. First, they all have large, rectangular boxes as their core structure. These boxes are augmented to look more interesting and complex by creating a layering effect in which other boxes jut out of certain parts of the buildings. Second, the materials on the outsides are all the same: orange bricks, a heavy emphasis on windows and a prefabricated “Hardie” paneling that finds itself somewhere on the grayscale. Third, all of them have between 12 and 14 floors. It is worth noting that most — but not all — of these buildings are also designed with retail space on the first floor.
The interiors and marketing for these buildings are also very similar. All of the buildings advertise a large common space with pool tables, high ceilings and a new take on mid-century modernism in which dark grays are accented by bright colored furniture, usually orange or blue. The floor plans of all the buildings are nearly the same with the kitchen next to the door, followed by the living room and then bedrooms off to the sides. Many advertise an industrial look to the buildings with exposed concrete ceilings — an easy way to cut costs while also seeming stylish and edgy.
The marketing in all of the websites is centered around selling a “luxury” student experience in which all aspects of the ideal student life can be achieved — a nexus of party life, studying, commercial convenience and exercise. Many of these buildings market themselves by selling a lifestyle, a “fam” or a community. Finally, most of the websites have a tab for parents and the concerns they will have for their child’s life in luxury apartments.
For many people in Ann Arbor, these developer modernist buildings have become a symbol of gentrification and the ongoing housing affordability crisis. In many ways, this question of gentrification and developer modernism was the central question of Prop A in this past year’s city election. The proposition proposed making the city’s library parking lot into an urban park as a way of blocking a new luxury housing development. The “Collective on 5th” would have fit seamlessly into the previously mentioned luxury apartments except for the fact that it would have been even more fancy.
The people of Ann Arbor voted “Yes” on Prop A, blocking the construction of the Collective on 5th, and making a loud statement about what people in Ann Arbor have come to see as gentrification. While there are interesting and complicated questions swirling around Ann Arbor’s housing debate, it is clear that these luxury apartments are designed with exclusivity in mind (generally speaking, rent is more than $1,000 in these buildings).
All of these developer modernist buildings in Ann Arbor got me thinking about the larger trend of these buildings popping up all across the U.S. in roughly the past five years. What exactly are these buildings? What do we want to call the buildings? Do we like how they look? What kind of impact do they have on the surrounding communities? Why are so many of them being built? And, just generally, what should we make of them?
The first term — and my preferred term — that I heard to describe these buildings, was “developer modernism.” In 2017, a series of memes swept the internet mocking and criticizing these buildings. Many of the memes, and their supporting critics, were just simply calling the buildings boring and ugly. Others, however, also saw the buildings as a sign of gentrification.
Kriston Capps, an architecture journalist, pointed out a deep state of irony in one of these memes. One building featured in a viral meme as an image of gentrification was actually affordable and low-income housing — it was just built in the developer modernist architecture style. Capps has been shown over and over again to be a supporter of these buildings, and calls them by his preferred term: fast-casual architecture.
His arguments in favor of the buildings are fairly simple: They are cheap to build, not every building needs to “dominate the view” and they are nice-enough looking. Capps sees it comparable to eating at a fast-casual restaurant. The food won’t blow you away, but it’s convenient, fairly cheap and fairly good. What's to complain about?
Kate Wagner, creator of the hit architectural blog "McMansion Hell," adds to Capps’ argument by pointing out that internet critics and meme creators have engaged in form of what she calls “Aesthetic moralism” — the belief that one aesthetic is inherently better or more righteous than another. Wagner says that the left has weakened itself by becoming more invested in aesthetics and traditionalist architecture which comes at the cost of actually finding ways to make housing affordable. Unlike Capps, Wagner does point out that, oftentimes, buildings in the fast-casual style are luxury buildings. Wagner notes that the main difference between the luxury and more affordable buildings are the interiors.
From all the research I have done, this argument seems to be true that the developer modernist style is one of the cheapest ways to build and that there are a plethora of examples of affordable and mixed-income housing being built in this style. Developer modernism is cheap for a number of reasons.
For starters, the insides of the buildings are usually cookie cutter, which cuts down on design costs. Also, the buildings tend to fit very well within city codes, which cuts down development delays. Furthermore, “Hardie” panels and bricks are two of the cheapest materials to build a facade out of, hence the mixture of the two.
So, what's to be made of all this? On the one hand, it is clear that the developer modernist apartments in Ann Arbor are not affordable and largely seen as images of gentrification. On the other hand, we see that this architectural style is one of the cheapest ways to build and can be used to effectively make low-income housing.
The takeaway is this: For people in Ann Arbor, like myself, who view developer modernism as a sign of a gentrification, take a second to refrain from aesthetic moralism when you see developer modernism in other cities. The powers of developer modernism can be used on much more noble projects than the next Zaragon Place.
Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.