What About Beauty?

This article was first published on Strong Towns, September 24, 2015

If I had to file a complaint against Strong Towns, it’s that our message sometimes gets wrapped up in data, economics, and the like. It can be somewhat hard to comprehend how all the financing and land values work, and at times, I’ve caught myself not totally grasping everything.

In the debate against Randal O’Toole, Chuck Marohn magnificently defended the positive economic aspects of classical city building. This was a complex debate–not for everyone–but it’s safe to say that an onlooker to this discourse already had a vested interest in the outcome for their city and had the mental capacity to understand the nuances at play.

However, I got to thinking. If I were going to approach someone who has never thought about our built environment, how would I go about doing it? Would I start with the data and leave out the safety aspect? Or vice versa? Or would I simply throw everything out the window and just tell them: “Look, our cities are ugly. Do you want to pass this on to your kids?”

A couple weeks ago I was asked to speak to the Blue Earth County Mayor’s Clerks group, a small, but somewhat influential group of government employees. I started my presentation by describing what New Urbanism is, what CNU is and what we’re looking to change. The “ah-ha” moment came when I summarized what “building places people love” meant.

I showed them this:

A place people loved
Above is a familiar scene, if you’ve ever dug into your cities past: the awesome old main street that was torn down because of inadequacy, special interest, or simply hubris. If yours wasn’t destroyed, Jane Jacobs is up in heaven (aka Seaside, FL) smiling.

The caption was “a place people loved.”

The caption for this next photo was: “A place no one cares about.”

place no one cares about

Why doesn’t anyone care about the typical commercial stroad? I’d argue that over anything else, it’s beauty. You get no sense of beauty from neon lights and oversized advertisements. There is nothing that is transcendent of the human experience. Rather, everything on these runways appeals to the lowest common denominators of American consumerism: food and stuff.

A byproduct of having a beautiful place is having high civic pride. When you have a clean room—say, a kitchen—you work to keep it clean, and that helps you feel more productive when you’re in there. We all know the feeling that a dirty, unorganized room gives us. It sucks your will to do anything productive. It can even entice you into making it more dirty by taking the “screw it, it’s already messy” approach to organization. Our commercial stroads are no different. They’re highly unorganized, ugly, and channeling all the entropy of humanity into one place. This leads to a sense of community dejection, and the inevitable outcome of everyone acting in their own best interest and the best interest of their properties. Ugly places breed NIMBYism.

I think this is highlighted in the circus that is the comment section of O’ Toole’s blog post on the debate. People go back and forth debating Strong Towns points, data, intentions, etc., to which I say, “Who cares!” We’re building ugly places that don’t do justice to the greatness of the American dream, or the collective free society our ancestors wanted to build.

Developer R. John Anderson always says, “We don’t have to build Paris on the Sein. We just have to build a slightly less crappy version of America.” I’ll admit that I’m somewhat pessimistic; I think that even if we are capable, we will just barely be able to build the aforementioned vision. But nonetheless, in that idea, we find the argument. Paris is beautiful, ergo, if we can even build something marginally better than what we have, we’re on the right path. Nothing about data, ROI, metrics, land use, etc… Just beauty, plain and simple.

Below is a picture I took in the (albeit very touristy) town of Galena, Illinois. (Go now. You won’t regret it.) When our ancestors dreamed of building a better society for future generations, the buildings were obviously a part of that. Art, music, and architecture were meant to be pinnacles of accomplishment. They were meant to transcend and lift the human spirit. Beauty is meant to highlight order and hard work. A society that doesn’t value either of these things is surely on the road to decline in more ways than one.

Galena IL

In this picture you can see a well-formed city that puts people at the forefront. Yes, the city was almost completely formed before the automobile, as were a lot of American cities. The city, however, did not forsake what was there. It simply continued using the gift its ancestors had passed down and now, because of that beauty, the residents enjoy the economic benefits that come along with it.

Our country is very good at highlighting economics, e.g., it’s better to have an ugly building that turns a profit. Every time something needs to come in on budget, the first thing to go is the aesthetics. The mantra that an ugly building will get the job done just as well as an attractive one, or that an ugly space is better than no space at all, is sadly backward. The affordability obtained by an ugly building will stick out as foolhardy in short order when you realize you have to look at it every day.

An unfortunate side effect of our mobility is that the commons have died and, in that death, our desire for a beautiful built environment has died too. I always find it ironic when people complain about their boring cubicles, but have no problem with our oversized commercial strips.

We can bring it back. We can highlight the beauty of architecture and space.  But policy, public opinion and planners all have to be part of the solution. If not, we’re doomed to a future of “meh” cities.

EDIT: At the risk of looking unprofessional as far as journalism is concerned, I’m adding a small addendum. I’m recommending a great documentary called “why beauty matters.” It deals with multiple art forms but there is a section on architecture as well. Give it a watch.

Matthias Leyrer

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.www.keycity.co. Follow him @mjleyrer