By Jayne Merkel

The irrational economic exuberance of the 1990s and 2000s has been rightly criticized for creating overheated markets and overextended pocketbooks, particularly in housing. That money, especially in luxury apartment towers, promoted a group of designers who emerged largely in the wake of postmodernism and who brought an unprecedented level of futuristic glamor to domestic lifestyles. Think Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Herzog & de Meuron, people referred to, derisively or not, as “starchitects.”

Reuters The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai.
Reuters The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai.

Now, in the wake of the housing-market collapse and the recession, these architects and their work are being accused of prioritizing surface over substance. But it’s likely that decades in the future, historians will look back at this period as one of unusual architectural creativity, particularly on the domestic front.

Not that there wasn’t a lot of spectacle along with the technical ingenuity. Take the daring Burj Khalifa, a mixed-use skyscraper in Dubai designed by Adrian Smith (at the time an architect at Skidmore Owings & Merrill) and completed in January; it soars to 2,717 feet, past every other structure in the world.

But the Burj, for all its glitter and quantitative abundance, is also an astounding technological achievement.

The road to the Burj started in the ’90s, when architects and their clients began turning against the pessimism ingrained in the backwards-looking postmodern movement. A revived interest in modernism was taking root; young couples started buying futuristic-looking mid-century modern furniture by Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson, Arne Jacobsen and Harry Bertoia.

It wasn’t just about looking backwards. As the Internet and e-mail became ubiquitous, people learned to stop worrying and love the computer, and buildings that had obviously been designed using complex computer calculations and new high-tech materials came into vogue. Frank Gehry’s wildly curvaceous and shimmering Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, became a worldwide phenomenon when it opened in 1997; its unprecedented popularity showed that the “new” was back with a buoyancy it had rarely had before.

Early and postwar modern architecture had been mostly sober and sensible, largely geometric, based on regular repetitions. But the most interesting buildings in recent years have been more playful, more enthusiastically experimental, even dazzling. And it’s a look that spans the architectural spectrum, from museums and sports venues to office and apartment towers. This time, though, the goal was not to revolutionize society, the way 20th-century modernism had planned. Instead it was more pragmatic; it was about using design to improve lives, often in subtle ways.

This was true in luxury design, but in public housing as well. True, moribund housing towers were demolished in Chicago and other cities. But they were replaced by more sensitive, socially integrated designs. The New York City Housing Authority embraced the new architecture of innovation early on, commissioning a series of ambitious community centers from award-winning local architects starting in the early 1990s. It placed them in the big empty lawns around existing housing towers, giving the tenants places to learn and play while making the complexes more attractive and secure.

Nonprofits also built some interesting housing, including the biggest development ever proposed in New York. The first 117 of 800 prefabricated, subsidized rowhouses at Nehemiah Spring Creek were completed in 2008.

Designed by Alexander Gorlin, whose elegant modern luxury houses routinely appear in Architectural Digest, and developed by a coalition of churches on a 45-acre former landfill in East Brooklyn, the houses recall brownstones in a crisp modern idiom; the tried-and-true efficiencies of brownstone design also made it possible to offer 1,600-square-foot units for as little as $158,000.

Not all domestic architecture was socially oriented, of course. Easy money helped Americans build bigger houses that looked traditional but were packed with electronic gadgetry. Despite all the talk about building “green,” most of these homes went up in energy-hungry suburbs, with gigantic SUVs and pickup trucks in their driveways. By 2008, the typical American house had grown to 2,519 square feet — over twice the size of the 963-square-foot ones of 1950. Even in New York, where housing is expensive and land is scarce, floor area grew. It became routine for two or even three small apartments to be combined into one large one.

Indeed, New York has seen an unprecedented building boom, and not just retrofits. New towers have remade the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines. Even 9/11 didn’t dampen the boom; more than 60 daring apartment buildings went up in the last decade in Manhattan alone. And if most of the new towers cater to the luxury trade, they are also the site of real innovation; they are also the center of a global movement. Thanks to advances in broadband electronic communications, American architects have been working all over the world, and star architects from abroad have designed especially dazzling apartments in New York.

The Beekman, Frank Gehry’s 76-story, stepped-back, crinkled-stainless-steel residential tower, the tallest in the city, drapes over a classical red-brick public school. The outer walls of Shigeru Ban’s 11-story Metal Shutter Houses roll up to reveal walls of glass that can open entire rooms to the outdoors. Blue-and-white walls tilt out and fold around the interiors of Audrey Matlock’s Chelsea Modern, creating new types of interior spaces and visual effects. Green cast-glass tubes contain the concrete structural grid on the energetic facade of Herzog & de Meuron’s 40 Bond Street, which inventively combines apartments and town houses with gardens.

And on the West Side Highway a curved wall of shimmering colorless glass wraps around Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue, offering fetching views of the Hudson from the inside and creating something like a 23-story mosaic on the street.

Developments like Nehemiah Spring Creek aside, most of the architectural innovation of the last two decades has been focused on luxury towers. But experimentation might continue, focusing perhaps on green technology, particularly if the recession continues. That’s because urban living is infinitely more energy efficient than suburban sprawl, and the path set by this recent wave of innovations in city living could easily continue into the suburbs. Perhaps as people learn to live with less, they will value innovative design even more.

Jayne Merkel is an architectural historian and critic. She is the author, most recently, of “Eero Saarinen.” She is a contributing editor of Architectural Design/AD magazine and Architectural Record.