I had a spicy Twitter exchange the other day with Max Nesterak, who has been doing great work at his new website, the MN Reformer. The question he posed rekindled some long-simmering thoughts I’ve been having about the eternal question “are new buildings bad?”
Here’s the tweet:
Who’s going to write an op-ed for @MNReformer about how Minneapolis is building too many ugly buildings and actually yes good architecture does contribute to quality of life and yes you can regulate design and yes developers can afford it
— Max Nesterak (@maxnesterak) July 11, 2020
Are new buildings ugly or beautiful? I almost don’t care. To me, looking at buildings from a planning and urbanist perceptive, the main / only thing that matters is a building’s design, not its aesthetics.
Aesthetics refers to the idea of beauty. Questions like: What is beautiful? What is good art? What is taste? Aesthetics refers to what you find to be beautiful, what you find to be great art, and why you think other people should feel the same way that you do.
Aesthetic debates are lots of fun to chat about, and if you buy me a beer, I will spend an hour talking about the top 5 Coen Brothers’ films, my favorite flavors of La Croix, which is the best Thelonious Monk song, or what is the ugliest building in Minneapolis.
But when it comes to policy, approving a building or not, outside of historic districts, aesthetics is not relevant. Cities and planners should focus instead on design.
What’s the difference?
Design is how a building works, whereas aesthetics is how a building looks. Design covers things like how many entrances it has on street level, how the wind blows around it, and whether the reflective surfaces magnify the sun into such a glare that it blinds people temporarily.
I will admit that it’s not an entirely straight-forward distinction. For example, take transparency regulations, which are as much a mix of design and aesthetics as any urban policy. But cities don’t regulate windows because they look good — though they do — but because they allow people to see through walls. This is the problem posed by the hundreds of windows that are simply for show, because they’re frosted over, reflective, blocked by shelving, or whatever. As design features, the important things about windows is how they function, allowing light to pass through, and visually connect the inside and outside of a building, and connecting public space to private space in cities.
Another example: skyways suck not because they are ugly — though they often are — but because they segregate the urban population, fracture potential customer markets, function as de facto private space, and make it all but impossible to build active streetscapes. Aesthetics are all but irrelevant here, though I still hate the skyways that were retrofit into historic buildings. (See: the Soo Line Building.) Even if they are “architecturally interesting” (i.e. aesthetically beautiful), they remain bad for cities because of their design.
The distinction between beauty and design is especially important when thinking about buildings, because buildings can be beautiful-and-bad and they can be ugly-and-good.
Take one of the most beautiful buildings in Minneapolis, from a purely aesthetic standpoint: the Northwest National Life Insurance building (aka the ING Building, aka the Reliastar Building). Everyone loves this building, even, begrudgingly, Larry Millett. It was designed by famous Japanese-American modernist Minoru Yamasaki, who designed both Pruitt-Igoe and the World Trade Center (both gone, in very different ways). It’s pretty, elegant, and a pure example of midcentury modernism.
And yet, it is terrible urbanism. It has huge setbacks, no street level activity of any kind, and, what’s worse, it occupies what should be a critical right-of-way. Its symbolic “green space” took the place of the city’s most central public park, and replaced it with some un-sittable stone ledges and often empty fountains.
So, yes, it’s beautiful-but-bad.
Contrast that with an ugly-but-good building. Personally, my least favorite new apartment structure in Minneapolis is the WaHu, a massive student-oriented apartment building at the corner of Washington and Huron. When I first saw it, I had flashbacks to the 3D-mapping backgrounds in the game Duke Nukem 3D. This looks like a building that was assembled from facade samples. I’d like to say that “the only good thing about living in WaHu is that you can’t see the building because you’re in it,” but I can’t because it’s so weird and massive that you can see the building from the inside.
And yet, it provides over 300 homes for students, does not have huge setbacks, occupies a formerly decrepit corner next to transit, and the street level is lined with doorways to well-used shops. It definitely makes Stadium Village a more vibrant, thriving place while providing a great many homes for young folks.
So, yeah. People lose their minds about new construction, and have been doing so since time immemorial. One of the weirdest, most interesting buildings that remains in Saint Paul was surely a hideous eyesore at the time (and if you’re clued in on Victorian architecture, still is today). But it’s a wonderful addition to the city and extremely affordable for downtown.
Are there buildings that are both beautiful and good urbanism? Sure. We can discuss our favorites at leisure. But the only thing that really matters is what a building does, what it replaces, how it functions as part of the street- and sidewalk-level public realm. The rest is noise or music.