What Lies Beneath

The 21st century started out so damn clean and shiny. But after nearly a decade, it’s showing cracks, and I’m not just talking about the economy. As the latest generation of owners found that every house cracks, fades, and stains with time, all those much-hyped, over-sanitized, razor-sharp homes turned out to be the credit default swaps of the architectural world. Maybe it’s time to put away the spackle—or, at the very least, to stop using it with such reckless abandon. In this new epoch of full disclosure, perfection looks awfully suspicious.

This year’s big design winners are part of an avant-garde that celebrates the moth holes, faded glory, and imperfections of buildings while, at the same time, inserting a few bold, modern moments. Exhibit A: London’s new Rough Luxe Hotel, dreamed up by internationally acclaimed designer Rabih Hage. His approach to transforming a run-down, 190-year-old structure into a startlingly sophisticated boutique inn bucked many trends. Instead of ripping out schlocky artifacts like motel TVs and built-in 1970s shelving, Hage edited. He deconstructed layers of old wallpaper to reveal a rich tapestry of plaster, ink, and paste, then skipped repainting. He left strange, vintage tiles in the bathrooms but added bright red toilet nooks illuminated by sleek recessed lighting fixtures. The design world is agog over the result, precisely because it challenges our sense of luxury in a cash-strapped economy.

Likewise, even the most discerning consumers are now demanding more than perfectly plumb walls and crisp moldings—they, like Hage, want to know what’s underneath. Whether in London or the Hub, everyone is seeking honesty (and that goes for design as well as for politics).

Boston has hundreds of beat-up lofts and buildings ready for their own edit. And we already have our version of the Rough Luxe in the felon-meets-fashion Liberty Hotel, where Cambridge Seven architects resisted whitewashing the former prison’s brick atrium or removing the cell-door hardware. Like other smart local architects, they’ve realized that tearing down, straightening up, or disinfecting history is, thankfully, passé.