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‍The Architecture of Real Estate

John Francis Torti

Re-establishing the equilibrium between real estate and architecture is central to our mission at Torti Gallas.

The Architecture of Real Estate

Great cities are made up of great neighborhoods. Many of those built before World War II, such as Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, New York, are among our nation’s finest. Built by developers in a speculative process, they owe their fine quality to the inspiration of both their master planners and their architects. The beauty of Forest Hills is due in no small part to the contributions of Grosvenor Atterbury, who oversaw its residential architecture through both individual commissions and guidelines.

Forest Hills, Queens, NY

The post-World War II population explosion likewise produced thousands of new neighborhoods. The quality of these communities, however, was negatively impacted by the shift to an almost exclusively developer-driven process. Absent the input of a designer’s eye, housing was reduced to a mere “product” to be bought or sold in the marketplace, and community site plans did little more than provide access and address.

Re-establishing the equilibrium between real estate and architecture, and interjecting the voice of the architect into the commercial development world of speculative housing, is central to our mission at Torti Gallas. Our goal is to realize the fine communities of the past and resuscitate the practices of our pre-War forebearers. 

Alban Row, Washington, DC

Our Approach

Key to our approach is to view housing commissions through the lens of urban design. We have come to appreciate the power of the aggregation of buildings, even just a few, to create place and so introduce site and larger ideas of neighborhood into a conventional real estate equation. We begin with the site, analyzing its yield while taking cues on density and house types from the context. The resultant design equation is a complex one, combining conventional real estate demands with new ones for fit and context, and balancing them against project costs and quality. A constant back and forth ensues, where we juggle building and construction types with parking strategies, block dimensions, and street and open space patterns. We work to adjust one variable to another, looking for the intersection where architecture and urbanism yield a greater whole—a powerful idea of place.  In today’s world where high land values, especially in urban areas, demand ever-greater site yields, our assemblage of the unit, the type, the lot, and the block is often crafted with the intricacy and precision of a Swiss watch.

Fort Belvoir Town Center, Fairfax County, VA

Architecture + Big Architecture

We practice our craft across many different densities and scales of development, from single buildings to entire neighborhoods.  When designing a single building, we try to understand the greater place, both the place that is fully formed and the place that may just be emerging. Our goal is to find key points of connection and build from them, creating a larger and better whole, and leaving a place for the next designer to connect.

When our commissions are neighborhood in scale and involve hundreds of dwellings, we borrow a strategy from standard product design and develop a basic set of building “chassis” with multiple variations in style, massing, materials, and color schemes. This approach marries the efficiency of high-volume real estate production with the variety of building types and nuanced architectural expression necessary to support a finely crafted urban plan. It represents the best value equation for the community and its future inhabitants, achieving the beauty of pre–War neighborhoods at the lowest possible price. Efficiencies like these are important here and around the world as the urgent need for shelter demands large quantities of housing at an affordable cost.

A Better World

Our external process has also shifted, expanding in scope from conversations with a single client to those with the diverse and ever-expanding cast involved in the making of neighborhoods and communities. What used to be closed door meetings have now become multiple conversations in a wide variety of settings in which we have learned the importance of listening.

Private commissions have increasingly become public/private ventures, charged not only with producing new real estate but also furthering important public goals. Revitalizing a distressed community, maximizing transit investments, or creating a 24/7 downtown have all been imperatives behind our housing commissions. More than simply real estate transactions, these projects operate as change agents, providing the catalyst that stimulates a broader transformation and helps to improve the city.  

In the end, our goal is to elevate the quality of everyday environments, and bring new dignity to ordinary housing and more power to the places they make. Our work is about making the background buildings that line the city’s ordinary streets and squares in which daily life unfolds. Simply put, we are the designers of the fabric of the city and strive to make the most beautiful things out of the simplest clay.

Neighborhood Green at Fort Belvoir, Fairfax County, VA

This essay is abstracted from Torti Gallas + Partners: Architects of Community, published by Vendome Press in June 2017.  To purchase a copy of the book please click here.


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