Faux Ever and Ever

The fashion of living in a loft has taken on bizarre new meaning.

By Dwight Young

Artists were among the first to embrace the quirky pleasures of living in warehouses, factories, and commercial structures in the inner city. These old buildings offered big open spaces with high ceilings, raw wooden or concrete floors, rough brick walls, exposed pipes, and—most important—cheap rents. People used the somewhat imprecise term "lofts" to describe them.

At first, these places ap-pealed mainly to creative and adventurous types who didn't want (or couldn't afford) to settle in more "ordinary" abodes. It wasn't long, however, before lofts started attracting more upscale residents who polished the floors and scattered expensive rugs on them, installed oversize artworks and dramatic lighting, and created lavish slate-walled bathrooms and granite-countertopped kitchens. Funky was out, glossy was in—remember Demi Moore's sleek pad in the 1990 movie Ghost?—and spiffed-up lofts from New York to Seattle echoed with the exclamations of awestruck dinner guests: "This. Place. Is. So. Cool."

The next step was probably inevitable, and now it's happened: Lofts have gone mainstream.

These days, the real estate section of every big-city newspaper is thick with ads for lofts. Since I'm pretty sure we haven't exhausted the supply of old buildings with potential for residential conversion, I find it remarkable (and a bit unsettling) that most of the lofts now on the market are in brand-new buildings. Although a few urban pioneers and renovators are still creating rough-edged live-work spaces in old structures, they're being outpaced by developers who have made "loft" a readily marketable label for new apartments that are anything but rough.

But wait, there's more: Lofts have left the inner city.

There's a development in suburban Denver where new homes designed to look like little warehouses or factories claim to bring "the excitement ... and vitality of contemporary urban loft living into a single-family detached home context." These imposters—with industrial-sounding names like the Cannery and the Steam Plant—are much in demand, partly, I suspect, because they're a safe distance from any real-life icky industrial area. This trend was also evident at last year's International Builders' Show in Las Vegas, where the National Association of Home Builders constructed a ready-to-move-into showcase house billed as a "loft-inspired detached single-family home." Inside, the place was agleam with buffed concrete floors and stainless-steel fixtures. Outside, it was surrounded by a grassy yard and set in a gated subdivision.

What real lofts have is context, a genuine connection with their down-and-dirty environment and a pedigree that combines economic necessity, a respect for the honesty of workaday architecture, and the kind of vision that can turn grungy into livable. Take away that context and what's left is a place that is a "loft" only because it has an open floor plan, high ceilings, and a few add-ons (light bulbs in metal cages and exposed air-conditioning ducts are practically mandatory) to provide a hint of industrial chic. What's left, in other words, is a concept—the idea of a loft—that can be marketed to those who are eager to experience the gritty edginess of urban life as long as it isn't too gritty or too edgy ... or too urban. It's a bizarrely off-kilter proposition, but people seem to like it: That showcase loft-house in Las Vegas sold for $1.9 million.

This isn't the first time preservation has played a role in sending architecture down a potholed road. The success of the Colonial Williamsburg restoration helped spur a phony colonial rampage that left everything from tract houses to gas stations sporting pseudo-Georgian frippery and looking like the misbegotten offspring of Christopher Wren and June Cleaver. Later, architects long schooled in Miesian austerity "rediscovered" the past (with preservationists' help) and sallied into postmodernism, creating buildings that assembled traditional forms—an Ionic column here, a Palladian window there—in a resolutely irreverent pastiche that was occasionally witty but often just silly.

I suppose this is all a manifestation of the American mania for having it (whatever "it" is) both ways. A make-believe medieval castle with central heat. A chaste Greek temple with a drive-up window. A sleek glass-and-steel box with early American furniture. And now a faux loft with a lawn and a three-car garage.

I'm not sure whether to chuckle in wonderment or groan in despair. Hand me that aspirin bottle while I decide.