The Power is Now

Zombie Projects Come Alive in a Real Estate Boom – Common Edge

I have been an architect for 45 years, and I think of my designs as exquisitely personal dedications. Like my children, the buildings I have helped bring to life remain alive in my mind as the newly minted realities they were. But over the last year I have been confronted with their life beyond memory. Some of my long-ago projects are now zombies—the living dead of my career—appearing on my laptop screen.

For decades “propping” a home to show for potential sale—staging the place with furniture, art, and fixtures to simulate a lived-in space, not merely a series of empty rooms—been part of real estate marketing. But in this boom, “propping” has become a huge industry, aided and abetted by revolutions in photography and video. Whether cause or effect, home sales are at a decade-long high, and websites such as Zillow, Houzz, and numerous others have completely changed how homes are bought and sold. To do that, images are required. So copious and lovely photos of homes for sale flood the world. Anyone can see everything, instantly.

For an architect, these living dead can be a little scary. Given their attachment to my name, I see them spontaneously appear on various platforms. My gut reaction is either “Did I do that?” or “Oh, I did that.” Projects jump out of the sea of history, the killer sharks of my past. But building is a bit like having children. Great effort often results in pain in birthing and joy in experiencing the delivered beauty. Then life happens. Buildings live on beyond their original design and construction, just as children leave the nest and create new lives. The parents of both offspring and buildings are often shocked or delighted by the inevitable changes their creations manifest. 

Cosmetic surgery, weight gain, hair loss, and tattoos are found in adult children and can be as disturbing to a father as the hideous siding and weird additions that are inflicted upon my designs once I have left the scene. The buildings and children who live in memory naturally have a life that is undeniably different from their moment of conception. It may be hard to deal with change, but it is not strange. Things change.

A recent photo via William Pitt Sotheby International. The house has survived 33 years of hurricanes and nor’easters.

Until now. When these old projects show up on my laptop, they are reborn. In this real estate boom and era of technological oversharing, the name and reputation of architects are now used to sell houses that were designed long ago. So my old children pop up on my screen. What had lived only in my memory is alive now in cyberspace. 

This has created a bizarro world of resurrected projects, once at the center of my professional life, then built, occupied, and often never seen again. There are no wrinkles, bald spots, beer belly paunches, or disturbing love interests. These are freshly scrubbed, reinvigorated time travelers. Architecture is exquisitely human. Just like the plastic surgery of aging faces and bodies simulates time travel, the new images of cleaned, buffed, painted and buildings, glowing on my screen, are virtually alive after their long-lost passing from my day-to-day practice. 

In these reunions there is none of the awkwardness of accepting change, only the shock of finding an old love who has lived many years without you.

Some were finished without my counsel: “We’ll take it from here.” So I am both shocked by the changes from conception and inordinately happy at the living joy of the project’s motivations being deliriously present in the hyped images. But in these reunions there is none of the awkwardness of accepting change, only the shock of finding an old love who has lived many years without you.

This is a new world, a metaverse filled with frozen pristine stills, lofted drone images, video flythroughs of buildings that have been unseen by me for decades. It is the opposite of demolition—it is the reanimation of memory. It is the resurrection, in its own time, of a place that rebirths my motivations found in the built outcomes. Perhaps it’s a good thing. It’s definitely a confusing one.

Featured image: A house on Bishop’s Green Island, off the coast of Branford, CT. The photo was taken by drone, a technology unavailable in 1989, when the house was designed and built. 

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