On Ugly Buildings

I’ve recently found myself getting frustrated by the discourses surrounding architectural aesthetics I’ve been coming across. Here’s an example from the Star Tribune. Yes, I know, the Strib comment section is terrible (bless those of you who take the time to try and ameliorate it), but humor me.

One person’s garbage is another person’s treasure. A variation on this sentiment usually rears its head early in debates over architectural aesthetics. It’s put forth as if to say, ‘there’s no objective measure of aesthetic value, so why even bother arguing about it?’

I’m going to try and avoid this question in a way that I hope could make future arguments about “ugly” or “all the same” buildings more fruitful. Obviously we all know that it’s 2015 and we live in the Void – I’m not going to try and posit some absolute theory of aesthetic value. Instead, I just want to ponder how and why buildings generate strong emotional reactions, and contextualize that process in the culture at large. I’m no expert, so this is mostly just a collection of thoughts from pertinent sources.

Buildings clearly elicit strong judgments from people. But how and why do feelings that are generated by buildings come about? What leads them to be called good or bad, or beautiful or ugly? I can think of at least three different ways, which I’ve ordered from the least to the most abstract.

The first is that a building provides or denies some immediate refuge from the elements, or for a need such as water or rest. Consider this passage and images from Streets for People by Bernard Rudofsky, a wide-ranging critique of the barbarity of American streets.

“Americans accept the extremes of their urban climate with fatalism; to their way of thinking, they are not to be tampered with. ‘ How the sun beats down upon the brick walls and stone pavements of the city!’ reads a children’s book, written by some anonymous sadist, and published in 1856 under the imprint of the American Sunday School Union. ‘The streets seem sometimes like an oven, and the poor laboring men and animals are almost ready to tumble down exhausted with the heat…’ Three generations later, the summer heat is still being trapped in streets devoid of trees, lawns, or water courses. People do nothing to prevent winter winds from raging through the unsheltered city canyons. Streets, they believe, have different functions in different climates; in this country they are supposed to be inhospitable. However delightful the street’s enclosure may be felt to be under ideal conditions, Americans resist being attracted by it. They close their minds to the fact that towns like Bologna can deal with heaver snowfalls than New York, or that streets in North African towns would be even more ‘like an oven’ then theirs without the inhabitants’ self-reliance and initiative.”









Rudofsky demonstrates that buildings can possess varying amounts of inherent hospitality or respect for the passerby. What if the sidewalks of downtown, Lake st., Franklin Ave. were colonnaded by the adjacent buildings?

* * *

Another way buildings elicit judgments is that they conjure an emotional reaction from our psyche based on our past. This could mean our evolutionary past – the impact of previous human habitats – or a preference instilled by our upbringing. In the first instance, an ancient cave preference could lead us to prefer seating near walls and corners. At a restaurant, you usually go for the booth – that’s because your subconscious was reared in a cave.

This example is purely conjecture, and unfortunately at this early stage, evolutionary psychology has little concrete evidence of anything. Are there overarching biases in human aesthetic preferences in the built environment? Probably. On the other hand, maybe each individual’s environmental preferences, to the extent they’re genetically determined, if at all, are as different from others’ as claustrophobes and an agoraphobes.

Nevertheless, some people have proposed innate qualities in humans that govern how buildings should be built. There is quite a bit of literature that starts from a set of assumptions about what these preferences are or might be, and critiques architecture on the basis of how well it conforms to them. One of them is Christopher Alexander, whose books The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language form a seductive, mystical treatise on how cities can emerge and come to life by unlocking “objective and precise” innate orders that give rise to the “timeless way.”

“The langauge, and the processes which stem from it, merely release the fundamental order which is native to us. They do not teach us, they only remind us of what we know already, and of what we shall discover time and time again, when we give up our ideas and opinions, and do exactly what emerges form ourselves.”

“Consider, for example, the pattern of events which we might call ‘watching the world go by.’

We sit, perhaps slightly raised, on the front porch, or on some steps in a park, or on a cafe terrace, with a more or less protected, sheltered, partly private place behind us, looking out into a more public place, slightly raised above it, watching the world go by.

I cannot separate it from the porch where it occurs.

The action and the space are indivisible. The action is supported by this kind of space. The space supports this kind of action. The two form a unit, a pattern of events in space.”

Another more recent book is The Architecture of Happiness by Allain de Botton. The architecture of happiness can basically be summed up in these excerpts:

“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”

“What is a beautiful building? To be modern is to experience this as an awkward and possibly unanswerable question, the very notion of beauty having come to seem likea concept doomed to ignite unfruitful and childish argument. How can anyone claim to know what is attractive? How can anyone adjudicate between the competing claims of different styles or defend a particular choice in the face of the contradictory tastes of others? The creation of beauty, once viewed as the central task of the architect, has quitly evaporated from serious professional discussion and retreated to a confused private imperative.”

“To help overcome our reluctance to pass open judgment on the aesthetic side of buildings, we should consider our comparative confidence in discussing the strengths and failings of our fellow human beings. Much of social conversation amounts to a survey of the different ways in which absent third parties have departed from or, much less commonly, have matched an implicit ideal of behavior.”

Regardless of whether human aesthetic taste is a blank slate or evolutionarily deterministic, there does seem to be some incongruity between the prevailing tastes of plebians and architects. Consider what Andres Duany says to Rem Koolhaas about an hour into their panel at the Harvard GSD, which is well worth watching in its entirety.

“But actually, the really important thing, is actually the retrofitting of the existing utterly demoralized profession that is designing America now. That is really what’s important. Many architects that were taught as modernists, who find they cannot make a living as modernists, because essentially there’s no market for modernism, so what they are is they’re bad traditionalists, they’re bad post-modernists. They do it badly, they have no pride, and they are our burden.”

Duany suggests that the prevailing quality of new buildings is the result of a class of professionals who want to be doing high modernism, find themselves stifled and subsequently half-ass projects.


Is that what’s going on here? Possibly, to some degree, but I think the amount of disagreement over new buildings points to something deeper.

* * *

Beyond the direct psychological impacts of buildings and calls to shape them to better ourselves, another way that a building might generate a positive or negative emotional response is that it may possess traits which act a signifiers for ideas or ideologies.

Some people have approached the idea of critiquing architecture and space from the perspective of what its physical attributes might signify in the culture at large. Here is what Paul Walker Clarke says about the early rise of modernism.

“Unfortunately, the new style as an image supplanted the initial social content. While a new architecture was created, it proved to have a negligible effect on the social order. Housing for the masses became confused as mass housing. The aesthetic of pure geometry – the unadorned cube – was mistaken as a desired end unto itself. The opposition to ornament became a pursuit of new visual patterns and not, as was initially proclaimed, the elimination of visual determinants of design. The agenda of social reform was divested. The concern that a building employ rational methods in its design was eclipsed by the concern that a building appear rational.

The style of the pure and unadorned object has enigmatic corollaries. It signifies that the object is separate from social meaning. The object has no history and continues no history. It is ahistorical. Meaning and form are independent; the object has only to refer to itself to be legitimate. The purity of the object is untainted because the object has no subject. All of these are futile assertions, the stuff of myths.

However, if as stated earlier, modern architecture was a resounding success, it was because its mystifications were essential for an economy that was destroying in order to create. It was an economy which appropriated the practice of architecture and which alienated the very act of dwelling and called it housing. The architect was no longer designing for her or his class. The housing, factories, schools, “public” libraries, warehouses, and other new building types were commissioned by the capitalist class, but not occupied by them, and certainly not occupied by architects. The subject of these objects was not the working classes, although indeed, they inhabited them. The subject was capitalism. The modernist architects were the first to have disenfranchised “clients.” Objectified by a mode of production, the laboring masses were further objectified by an architectural philosophy which did not respect history, that rebelled against notions of class and thereby refused to recognize the continued relations of class. It was a philosophy of universal norms, unconcerned with aspects of existing culture. The major success of the modernists was the creation of a model of utilitarian construction and a rationale for it. This model was then appropriated and debased by the very economic forces from which the model was to be the salvation.”

This idea is ‘concretely’ illustrated by this anecdote from the Architecture of Happiness:

“In 1923 a French industrialist named Henry Fruges commissioned the famous but still relatively untried architect Le Corbusier, then thirty-six years old, to build houses for a group of his manual workers and their families. Sited next to Fruges’s factories in Lege and Pessac, near Bordeaux, the resulting complexes were exemplars of Modernism, each a series of undecorated boxes with long rectangular windows, flat roofs and bare walls. Le Corbusier was especially proud of their lack of local and rural allusions. He mocked the aspirations of what he called the ‘folkloric brigade’ – made up of the sentimentalising traditionalists – and denounced the French society’s intransigent resistance to modernity. In the houses he designed for the labourers, his admiration for industry and technology expressed itself in expanses of concrete, undecorated surfaces and naked light bulbs.

But the new tenants had a very different idea of beauty. It was not they who had had their fill of tradition and luxury, of gentleness and refinement, nor they who were bored by the regional idiom or the detailed carvings of older buildings. In concrete hangars, dressed in regulation blue overalls, they spend their days assembling pine packing cases for the sugar business. The hours were long and the holidays few. Many had been dragooned from outlying villages to work in Monsieur Fruges’s factories, and they were nostalgic for their former homes and parcels of land. At the end of a shift in the plant, to be further reminded of the dynamism of modern industry was not a pressing pscyhological priority. Within a few years the workers therefore transformed their all-but-identical Corbusian cubes into uniquely differentiated, private spaces capable of remind them of the things which their working lives had stripped away. Unconcerned with spoiling the great architect’s designs, they added to their houses pitched roofs, shutters, small casement windows, flowered wallpaper and picket fences in the vernacular style, and once that was done, set about installing a variety of ornamental fountains and gnomes in their front gardens.”

* * *

This is a rendering of a facade of an apartment building that’s been proposed about two blocks from where I live in Midtown Phillips.

11th ave discombobulation

Compare that to a traditional Queen Anne:


Just kidding, these are the real ones:

11th ave original


Traditional architecture is more rule-bound, reflecting a time when people foolishly thought absolute truths could be ascertained through investigation or even just thinking hard enough.


The somewhat more interchangeable features of the facade of a modern apartment building symbolically reflect our evolution toward moral and philosophical plurality and relativism.

Ellen Dunham-Jones investigates the theme of the abandonment of social projects and the rise of ambivalency and acquiescence to capital as it applies to Rem Koolhaas in this essay.

“Instead of critiquing capitalist society, bolstering the civic and the public, or ministering to the needs of the impoverished, he justifies the idea that architects, even if not especially avant-garde, are now free to serve the market. Koolhaas is not alone in these tendencies, but his essays and projects of the ’90s smoothed the way for the parade of “starchitecture” object-buildings that followed. They also spurred his protégés to embrace the idea of the post-critical and the speculative. In effect Koolhaas has encouraged his followers to shed the crippling shackles of critical theory and pick up a surfboard upon which to ride the shock waves of the new economy.”

* * *

I just described three pathways through which architectural aesthetics influence us. The first two are fairly intuitive, but the last is often overlooked. Aesthetics are always political. In this universe I hate football and resent its physical exaltation anywhere near me, but there’s a corner of the multiverse where a building identical to the new Vikings stadium is my favorite building ever, and instead of football games they have giant balloons flying around trying to pop each other.

A lot of people find new buildings ugly because they resent the process that gives rise to them and reject their philosophical symbolism. An apartment in Stadium Village may not have the same symbolic freight as the latest Rem Koolhaas building, but the ethos described by Dunham-Jones has filtered into the profession at large. Some architecture is moving toward an idiom that codifies aesthetically the denial of any biological or philosophical truth other than the market. When we argue about whether a building is ugly, we’re partly sublimating our deep feelings on capitalism or the meaninglessness of life and the appropriate way to react to it.


8 thoughts on “On Ugly Buildings

    1. Alex

      I’ll expand on that a bit: I think that theories of aesthetics are interesting but I find it sort of depressing to think about them for reasons you touch on in your section on Modernism. I live in a small city in Iowa that has an amazingly intact old city of pleasantly adorned brick structures from the mid- to late-19th centuries, which of course has been swallowed by a bloated section from the second half of the 20th century that is comprised of randomly-plopped beige boxes. It’s interesting to me that the character of the inhabitants didn’t change too much in the 150 years spanning the development of the two sides of town; they remained largely blue-collar Catholic whites who use a 2nd person plural (youse). But when the old city was built they were like the French laborers in the example, clinging to the vernacular fluff as a frilly raft in the capitalistic, industrialized sea they’d flung themselves into. By the time the new city was built, their descendents were Americans and showed their working-class solidarity by buying into the capitalist framework that perverted modernism in your selection and ironically ended up with the vernacular modernism of ranch houses. I think it’s really sad that the conformist nature of the US melting pot encourages the abandonment of the beautiful old structures in favor of an aesthetic of voluntary fascism, but I suppose that is due to my background as an affluent misfit from the suburbs.

  1. onlyadolphin

    I appreciate this thoughtfully written post and am still processing it. The condoz pictures could be Seattle. Maybe there are 3 or 4 mixed use building plans available for cheap online.

    As a messenger and process server in Seattle, I have been inside them all. They don’t get better on the inside. I don’t know how it is in MPLS but the ones in Seattle are so poorly designed and constructed that nearly every structure needs to be rebuilt after envelopes fail and walls leak or an entire 20+ story building demolished, as was the case with the McGuire luxury apartment building in downtown Seattle.

    Years ago I lived in Uptown and downtown Minneapolis and it’s interesting to see the same building trends in the 612. Because I love place so much…the experience of being in a place…drinking coffee on a bench in front of a coffee shop that used to be a grocery watching people walk by, culture breathed in and out. the vibrational essence of a place even manifesting in the cadence of speech…it breaks my heart to see the best great cities can do is the mixed use 5 on top. And for what? Are there no other design ideas on the table? If there are, why don’t we see more aesthetic vision and voice? What is that Dessa song…don’t aim for the center, it’s a waste of the art…

    I now live in Tacoma. Tacoma is another story altogether. There isn’t enough money and commerce here for developers to find it worth their while. The civic leaders have hired urban design graduate students at Portland State University to come up with designs for the Tacoma 25 year plan. It would seem like a good place to start. Thinking ahead. Recognizing a good thing going and working to improve on it with better public transportation and connectivity and hopefully, in Tacoma’s case, more zoning for brick and mortar micro business opportunities.

    I don’t know what Minneapolis feels like these days, but out here we all grieve for old Seattle. Of the artists and writers and good people I knew, most have moved to Portland and Brooklyn. I like the quote by Christopher Alexander about space and action being linked. What does cookie cutter, cheap as possible design encourage? What does it limit? Who does it appeal to? Who declines…and moves away? What kinds of states of being and “actions” does a community want to encourage. How does one design for harmony, compassion, walkable communities, urban agriculture, poetry, wellbeing, future generations, spontaneity?

    The Corbusier industrial housing story from the ‘Architecture of Happiness’ speaks to aesthetics bubbling up from individuals’ need for comfort and happiness. This could explain the almost fetishizing of artisan products and agrarian lumberjack styling in the Pacific Northwest, meeting needs not met in urban development and design.

    What would it be like to build for what makes people happy and relaxed? And meets other needs like preventing sprawl and encouraging small carbon footprints? I like Serenbe in Georgia as an idea, although I haven’t been there yet. As ground up design I think it starts a good conversation.

    Over this past winter I read several articles about how MPLS communities bought buildings and put in bike shops and breweries and how it’s working. They seem to have a sense of how to create place.

  2. Monte Castleman

    A couple of thought. I do think it’s extremely dangerous to make absolutes as far as aesthetic value. It seems generation 1 builds something, generation 2 gets more use out of it, generation 3 hates it and tries to demolish a much of it as possible, then generation 4 tries to save what’s left and gets angry at generation 3. Look at the most infamous example, people thought the Met was ugly and dates and thought they were doing a favor by replacing the Gateway with shiny new concrete. Right now we’re getting to stage 3, where we’re trying to get rid of as much as the post-war modernism as possible because it’s, in our current opinion, ugly.

    As far as the comment about making people happy and relaxed, in some cases that would be sprawl, getting as much house as possible for cheap, making driving easy. I know I’d never be happy and relaxed in Minneapolis, so giving people what they want is often mutually exclusive with what some people perceive as greater society goals. Uniformity dates back to Levittown, or even before that, the absolutely identical rowhouses before that.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      And I’m sure my 106 year old four-square built as railroad worker’s housing looked exactly like tens or hundreds of other identical homes when it was built. In fact I can see one that looks identical at the end of my block. But now it’s just those two left and so it looks “diverse” again.

      More in general, I don’t think it’s fair to compare what’s left after 100 years to the whole field of what’s being built now.

      And as Monte says, architecture goes in phases. No style of architecture has been universally adored from its inception to the present.

    2. Nathanael

      There are some absolutes in aesthetic value. You can only find them by actual proper psychological studies, though.

      As I note below, people like their architecture to have curves. Absolute, not personal preference. Determined by neuroscience studies.

      *Most* of aesthetic value is personal taste. But not all of it.

  3. Nathanael

    Very long piece… but here’s the thing. We actually do have some hard psychological evidence on what people consider “beautiful” vs. “ugly” in buildings.




    19th-century design frequently built buildings which are structurally very boxy, but then put curved decorations all over them. This is *very very smart*, it turns out. Cheap, efficient, yet attractive.

    Since modernism, architects have done all kinds of things, but most often they’ve built buildings with no curves at all. As a result, the buildings look hostile and ugly. Except the ones with curves, which people like…

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