Lofty Ambitions

Once upon a time, lofts were cheap spaces for struggling artists. Today they are phony and pricey, and that's just fine.

The Atlantic , April 2007

When Harvey and Sandy Gordon decided to move from their mid-century modern house in a suburban Houston neighborhood to a high-rise condominium in the city’s museum district, they told their real-estate agent not to show them any loft units. Over the past few years, Houston has become one of the country’s centers for built-from-scratch lofts, selling big windows, an in-town location, and a creative aura. But the Gordons weren’t interested.

“We were from New York originally,” explains Sandy, “and in New York, a loft was an authentic happenstance. They were warehouses that got converted, and I could understand that. But just to build a loft new seemed to me a little bizarre.” Her husband, a retired urologist, agrees: “What could be sillier than building a loft building de novo?”

After rejecting conventional condos as cramped and claustrophobic, however, the Gordons finally agreed to look at one of those ridiculous new “soft lofts”—a unit in a “first-generation new-build loft-style apartment development” that opened in 2000. Experience quickly trumped abstract objections. “The rooms were huge, there was light and glass all over, and there were 12-foot ceilings, even with the stupid pipes up above,” recalls Sandy. “There was a wonderful feeling of airiness and openness … I fell in love with it immediately.”

They paid a little less than $450,000— more than they had originally budgeted— for the 2,380-square-foot condo and moved in last June. “I don’t think it’s silly anymore, because clearly it was a marketable idea, and people like it,” says Harvey. Then he qualifies his change of heart: “It’s silly—but it’s a [design] convention, and lots of conventions are silly.”

Lofts were never supposed to be homes. They were vacant old factories and warehouses, taken over by artists looking for cheap space and good light. In the 1960s, loft pioneers in New York violated zoning laws and managed without heat or interior walls, creating functional arrangements in strange spaces; a loft might be 25 feet wide and 200 feet long. The original lofts represented an ingenious, economical compromise, not a new architectural ideal. Yet, quite by accident, those loft-dwelling artists invented a new form of vernacular architecture. Their lofts demonstrated the possibilities of a big open space more suited to a certain kind of modern urban life than the rigid divisions of a traditional home. The trend spread to other cities, popularized by movies, from An Unmarried Woman in 1978 to Big a decade later, that portrayed lofts as scenes of creativity and independence. By the late 1980s, affluent professionals were paying a premium for the wide-open living spaces made fashionable—and habitable— by bohemian types.

“I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to live in a downtown setting, and in a loft, because I saw it in movies,” says Andrew Ruiz, the 36-year-old community manager of the Santee Court lofts in downtown Los Angeles, a complex that occupies three old factory buildings and has four more building conversions under way. To moviegoers, lofts looked exciting and fun. And there was the pure aesthetic appeal—the light and space and modern materials. As lifestyles changed, lofts were increasingly well adapted to the way many non-bohemians wanted to live. The childless couples, informal entertaining, and home-based work spaces that used to be eccentric are now, if not mainstream, at least fairly common. Today’s lofts represent not only the adaptive reuse of old buildings but also the adaptive reuse of the very idea of loft living. The style is less about architecture than about a particular ideal of urban life: informal, open to new experiences, self-created, and “close to the action,” as Joel Contrer­­as, a Phoenix real-estate agent and loft enthusiast, puts it. Loft living is the antithesis of suburban domesticity, if only because the open spaces don’t easily accommodate family life.

Lofts also offer residents the opportunity—and responsibility—to structure their own space to reflect what’s important to them. That may not mean throwing paint around like Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman, but it does allow unusual combinations of home and work: a photography studio on the main floor with a sleeping platform above, for instance, or vice versa. Lighting designer Chad Rothe, who defines a loft as “an open shell where one can design within the four walls to accommodate one’s needs,” displays large-scale art on the oversized walls of his Scottsdale, Arizona, loft, while professional DJ Mikyl Calovich plans to build a booth and mini- studio in his.

Some loft dwellers devote most of their space to entertaining, with minimal bedroom space or a Murphy bed. Even a “soft loft” like the Gordons’, which has full walls around its bedrooms, contains fewer rooms than a traditional home of the same size, demanding more thought about how to use the space. The Gordons have made part of their large bedroom into a study with two desks, their computer, and an Eames chair. “Whereas in the house I would have been sitting and reading in a different room,” says Harvey Gordon, “here, I’m sitting and reading in a different part of the same room where I sleep.”

But is the Gordons’ place really a loft? Or is it just a downtown condo with exposed pipes? Many critics find today’s new lofts amusing or dishonest. “We want to be urban, so we’re bragging about our fake lofts,” wrote Jaimee Rose, an Arizona Republic reporter. Rothe, the Scottsdale-based lighting designer, laments the “non-genuine characteristics” of Phoenix’s built-from-scratch buildings, which lack “the creaking floors and the smell of history.” By some definitions, every new loft is indeed a fake—whether constructed from the ground up, rehabbed as a calculated real-estate development rather than a spontaneous personal reuse of found space, or occupied by investment bankers instead of artists. The NoHo Lofts in an old Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer plant in North Hollywood may have been billed as the San Fernando Valley’s “Only Authentic Lofts,” but their earthquake reinforcements, bathroom walls, and kitchen appliances weren’t installed by squatting artists.

Today’s lofts are mere reproductions of the originals—and nothing offends architecture critics more than inauthenticity. As Ada Louise Huxtable, the influential critic, wrote in her 1997 book, The Unreal America:

Authentic is the real thing, and a reproduction, by definition, is not; a copy is still a copy, no matter how skilled or earnest its intentions. To equate a replica with the genuine artifact is the height of sophistry; it cheapens and renders meaningless its true age and provenance. To imply equal value is to deny the act of creation within its own time frame, to cancel out the generative forces of its cultural context. What is missing is the original mind, hand, material, and eye.

By this strict standard, the sole alternative to fake lofts would be no lofts, or at least no new lofts. But truth in advertising shouldn’t require formal stasis or a limited number of antiques. Take the “authentic reproductions” that so trouble Huxtable. They accurately embody forms developed in the past—forms we continue to value for their sensory delights. A reproduction’s claim to “authenticity” is an assurance that it contains the aesthetic wisdom evolved through an earlier era’s trials and errors. Loft enthusiasts debate intensely just which features define the authentic form: How important is an old building? Must there be high ceilings? Big windows? What about bedroom walls? A rough industrial space with concrete floors and few interior walls—a common real-estate definition of an “authentic loft”—may seem less authentic than a newly built loft if the old building has small windows and low ceilings while the new loft is bright and spacious. For people like the Gordons, what matters is not the architecture’s provenance but its effect.

Aesthetic authenticity comes not from some preexisting definition of truth but from a match between form and desire. To be fully authentic, a design must serve the emotional, expressive, and practical purposes of its users. Authenticity is thus what “seems right”—a decidedly subjective and changeable criterion, not something that can be deduced from nature. What we find authentic can evolve over time, as new styles develop through appropriation and recombination of old ideas. Today’s new lofts were never intended to re-create the full experience of the originals. Rather, we learn from the old to create the new, adapting elements that remain compelling outside of their original context. What makes a loft authentic isn’t its layout or its history but its ability to give people a true home—a dwelling that reflects their personalities and aspirations, including their dreams of urbanity.