Are New Buildings Ugly or Beautiful?

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:

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.

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Jan Gehl has spent a lifetime writing about this very topic.

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Pages from Jan Gehl’s Cities for People.

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.

Ing Building Minneapolis

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.

Wahu Apartments

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.

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46 Responses to Are New Buildings Ugly or Beautiful?

  1. Monte Castleman July 22, 2020 at 9:25 am #

    Ahh, the old “We got a deal at a half dozen random leftover exterior finishes at Home Depot instead of just buying one they had enough of” school of architecture… See also: any lifestyle center.

  2. Monte Castleman July 22, 2020 at 9:29 am #

    Also, isn’t there something in the Minneapolis zoning code that encourages or requires
    having a random discombobulated jumble of a mess of exterior finishes and elevations rather than picking one or two and being consistent with them?

  3. Elizabeth Larey July 22, 2020 at 9:29 am #

    I think St Paul has done a better job of keeping their historic buildings compared to Mpls. That’s why it has more of a “town” feel to me. Mpls looks like every other large city. Unattractive.

  4. Greg Gaut July 22, 2020 at 9:43 am #

    One thing missing from this discussion is materials, and how they relate to longevity. I wish more Minneapolis developers and architects would make the “design” decision to use more brick and native limestone, not just for aesthetics, but also so that their buildings would hold up longer. I agree with what Bill says about the functionality of these structures, especially during a housing crisis, but I am concerned about the extent to which these new apartment buildings will retain their functionality over time.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 22, 2020 at 11:14 am #

      Everyone always claims that new construction is going to fall apart in 20 years, but I kind of doubt that.

      • Tim July 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm #

        “Fall apart” is probably an exaggeration, but there are plenty of new buildings that have had construction quality issues. I live in a newish (about five years old) apartment building and it’s already had to undergo a few projects to fix problems with leaks, drainage, etc.

      • Bob Roscoe July 22, 2020 at 3:29 pm #

        I very much agree.

      • Monte Castleman July 22, 2020 at 3:47 pm #

        I use to work for a company affiliated with the Hometime PBS show and the structural issues they found were shocking.

        • Tim July 23, 2020 at 10:29 am #

          Pretty much any building will develop some kind of issue over a long period of time. But there’s a lot of recent construction that has way too much for its age, and they are often avoidable.

      • Sheldon Gitis July 24, 2020 at 10:14 am #

        What incentive do those who are building the large new apartment buildings have to insure that those buildings will last for a very long time? Are you really so naive as to believe that the developers and their construction contractors and investors will build durable buildings just because it’s the right thing to do?

        It seems to me, in order to maximize profits, the incentive is to build the buildings as quickly and inexpensively as possible. The faster the buildings are built, the faster the real estate developers and construction contractors collect their fees. And, the cheaper the construction materials, and less skilled and less well-paid the labor, the greater the profit for the builder. The Sheetrock and plywood and plastic pipe and aluminum coil that the low-skilled labor lugs around doesn’t have to, and isn’t going to, last 50 or 100 years. It only has to last long enough for everyone making money off the project to get paid.

        After 20 years, or however long it takes to pay off the construction bonds, when the building starts falling apart and is in need of an “update”, whoever owns it at the time can simply unload the falling apart building for pennies on the dollar onto some “fix-it-upper” salvage co., or hand it off to some non-profit “Foundation”, and then move on to the next money-maker real estate deal. The large WaHu-like construction projects are about short-term profit, not long-term investment.

        Looking at the Cardinal Group folks behind the WaHu monstrosity, not only does their building look ephemeral, it looks like they themselves are some sort of freshly-minted Carlson School-like alumni whose business, founded in the immediate aftermath of the crash in 2009 , will also likely be very short-lived, and for good reason. I’ll gladly take a Northwestern National Life Insurance Building, any time, any place, rather than the Cardinal Group’s “Did you know?” WaHu bullshit.
        https://cardinalgroup.com/our-team/
        Looking at the Cardinal Group “team” makes me wish for the good ole days when at least the gangsters were local, well-known, and somewhat accountable.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sargent_Pillsbury_Jr.
        As misplaced and dis-functional as it may be, the Northwestern National Life Building will no doubt long outlive the Cardinal Group’s “luxurious” WaHu student housing project. What may now be, ugly as it is, a shiny new building with new accoutrements, in a very short period of time will be a not very shiny older building with a lot of needed of repair and replacement. If you think the maintenance costs for a small house are unaffordable, imagine what it’s going to cost to maintain the WaHu when stuff starts wearing out. Good luck paying for that disaster.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke July 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm #

          And yet, WaHu remains the superior building on every meaningful urban design matter.

          • Sheldon Gitis July 24, 2020 at 2:41 pm #

            No doubt “every meaningful urban design matter” and the Cardinal Group’s “Did you know?” bullshit have much in common.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke July 27, 2020 at 9:57 pm #

              ?

            • Mike Sonn
              Mike Sonn July 28, 2020 at 11:23 am #

              At what point do we need to have an intervention for Sheldon? I think the time is now.

  5. Clark Starr July 22, 2020 at 9:47 am #

    I think design vs. aesthetics is pretty ambiguous. They intersect almost immediately. Take setbacks (in commercial districts). You seem to think the less the better. I disagree. A setback can allow for more trees, more room for sidewalk tables, etc. There’s a building going up at 44th and France that is, maybe, 8 feet from France. I don’t find that good design (won’t allow outdoor space for groundfloor business, if crowded makes pedestrians get close to road/cars, etc.) or aesthetics (the sad trees they’ll inevitably plant won’t do well). I get the economic argument against them, but I really don’t buy the liveability arguments. It has to be done in moderation of course, but outdoor space, even “non-place” space should be valued and used intelligently, it shouldn’t just be tossed out for more square footage of the associated property.

  6. Paul July 22, 2020 at 9:59 am #

    Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder of disappearing free street parking and increasing traffic?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 22, 2020 at 11:16 am #

      Cars are not bad because they are ugly, though they often are. They are bad because they take up far too much space, kill and injure people, and pollute the earth something fierce.

  7. Sheldon Gitis July 22, 2020 at 10:01 am #

    As someone who has traveled past the the Northwest National Life Insurance building many times, on foot and by bike, and also once toured the inside of the building, long, long ago, the suggestion that the 300-unit WaHu monstrosity is in any way comparable, or preferable, is truly preposterous. Anyone who would prefer walking or biking past the WaHu to a stroll or ride past Northwest National Life Insurance building needs to have their head examined.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 22, 2020 at 11:17 am #

      The Northwest National Life building would be a great building in an office park in Golden Valley.

      • Clark Starr July 22, 2020 at 11:53 am #

        So now we’re into the “Aesthetic debates” that ‘are lots of fun to chat about.” Having zero experience with its interior, only enjoying it from the outside, I think it’s a great building and I’m happy it’s in our downtown.

        The real shame is what happened to the old plaza at the old Fed. I used to take the 16a down there to skateboard, it was a dream for skateboarding.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke July 22, 2020 at 11:59 am #

          It’s fine if you’re driving past it I guess. Once you get out of your car, it’s another story. As a downtown building, it is terrible.

          The worst thing about it is that it replaced the heart of the Gateway, the central intersection of the city, the intersection of Hennepin and Nicollet, one of the oldest and most vibrant and lively (albeit very poor) parts of the city, with a bunch of dead space: water, empty plazas, symbolic unused grass, lifeless sidewalks, and not a doorway or meaningful window on 99% of the building. Zero people hang out there.

          • Eric Anondson
            Eric Anondson July 22, 2020 at 12:27 pm #

            It looks nice.

            My office is in 100 Washington Square and I had to walk past this every day to get to my bus.

            Lifeless is what it is to the daily pedestrian. The massive pools that create a moat between the sidewalk and the building are not great either, and certainly not great in the winter. Wish those would go.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke July 22, 2020 at 12:30 pm #

              100 Washington Square is also bad, of course.

          • Sheldon Gitis July 22, 2020 at 3:54 pm #

            Haven’t been there recently, but as I recall, it was at one time a fairly public place. People would sit out on the plaza on a nice summer day and have lunch by the fountain. They also used to do daily tours of the interior, kind of like the State Capitol. It could be, like the U of M and a lot of other once very public places, it is now much more private. I think the public v. private nature of places has more to do with policy than architecture.

      • Sheldon Gitis July 22, 2020 at 3:37 pm #

        I think “great building” and “office park in Golden Valley” is a bit of a mismatch. I don’t think you’ll find anything comparable in Golden Valley, or any other Twin Cities suburb.

        As I recall from my grade school tour back in the 60’s, it was basically a monument to John Sargent Pillsbury Jr., the CEO of the life insurance company, and I agree, not necessarily the greatest use of real estate. If you’re trying to make the case for 300-unit apartment buildings vs large office buildings with a life insurance co. as the anchor tenant, I’d say neither option sounds very appealing to me, at the Northwestern National Life Building site, Golden Valley or anywhere else.

    • Andrew July 24, 2020 at 9:29 am #

      I hate walking past that building, especially in the winter. Huge long, cold, windy, empty block you have to traverse to get to Whole Foods. The building is pretty, but you don’t get to enjoy it because it is not comfortable to dwell on that block.

      Actually, good example. The Whole Foods building is uglier, but drastically more useful.

      • Sheldon Gitis July 24, 2020 at 10:09 am #

        I agree, grocery stores are far more useful than life insurance buildings.

  8. John Abraham
    John Abraham July 22, 2020 at 10:49 am #

    Interesting thoughts, so that’s what was going on in the periphery of my twitter feed the other day. 🙂

    When I was pondering doing a story for this here website on the “Foundry” building that was originally built with substandard materials next door to us (Lake Street / Excelsior intersection) we took a tour and I still remember being struck by the neo-Cold War architecture on its cold, impersonal inside. Is this what (young) people want?
    You also made me think about that Yamasaki building in a different way, there is more at play when you’re dealing with a prime location like that.

    Also am totally down for a Coen bros discussion some day…as long as it doesn’t immediately disavow me by actually liking “The Ladykillers”…

  9. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 22, 2020 at 11:43 am #

    This is a really similar argument from Strong Towns: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/7/21/is-this-development-out-of-scale

    “What matters most is not height, the strange obsession of many an armchair urban-design expert, but whether the sidewalk-level design is good and sufficiently granular.”

  10. Ben Picone July 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm #

    Great article! Definitely an interesting topic to dive into. I would have loved even more examples. This makes me want some sort of streets.mn bracket.

  11. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker July 22, 2020 at 12:06 pm #

    Buildings are for using, looking at them is a bonus.

  12. Anton Schieffer
    Anton Schieffer July 22, 2020 at 12:22 pm #

    “Back in the day, things were good, but now things are getting worse, and this new building reminds me of that every time I see it.”

    People who enjoy pointing out ugly modern buildings usually are hard-pressed to point to new buildings they like. Some people just like to criticize things! These people are very fun at parties (remember parties?).

  13. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson July 22, 2020 at 12:23 pm #

    As long as the building has great sidewalk interaction (not a continuous wall with minimal entry), and meets building code in construction, what it looks like above the ground floor is near the bottom of my concerns. And it is never an acceptable reason to deny new housing.

  14. Bob Roscoe July 22, 2020 at 3:22 pm #

    Choosing my favorite Thelonius Monk song is way too difficult for me, other that it is the one playing anytime his music on playing on my mac, but I’ll commit to ‘Five Spot Blues.’

    My architectural criticism is forgiving when it comes to choosing the most unfortunate edifice among us, but the Wagensteen Building at the U of M hospital complex is my pick. Were the architects funning us when the added the huge overbite on top?

    • Monte Castleman July 25, 2020 at 6:15 pm #

      I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I find it a beautiful building. Or at least a big improvement over that Wahu monstrosity.

  15. Stephen Gross July 23, 2020 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks for an excellent article, Bill! I agree that aesthetics should not be in the city’s purview (outside of historic districts, which is another matter entirely). As for the ING building, you’re right: it’s beautiful, and it’s a terrible use of space.

  16. Scott July 24, 2020 at 10:58 am #

    Fun post.

    IMO both of the star-architect designed Guthrie Theater and Walker Art Center buildings have poor design, but are attractive modern structures. The Hennepin Avenue frontage of the Walker was so bad that they eventually built a new entrance lobby back onto Vineland Place. The street frontage of the Guthrie is flat and dull and that giant skyway from the parking ramp feels like a dead zone underneath. Yet, the Guthrie helped to spur redevelopment of a whole new neighborhood…

  17. Jared July 24, 2020 at 2:42 pm #

    I think beauty is extremely important and there is no real conflict between good urban design and aesthetic considerations.

    What centuries-old design can teach us is that there is a certain appeal to constraints, whether they be financial or logistic in nature, and buildings made of inexpensive locally sourced materials not only have a smaller footprint but reflect the character of the locale far better. They are more authentic. Architectural features that are extremely compelling can justify exceptions to this rule, but they deserve scrutiny before getting the green light.

    It’s a shame we allow our buildings to become bland commodities when they could reflect the character of the locale and be distinct from other areas whose natural resources differ from ours.

    It’s one of the reasons I and many others reject the suburbs. A Charleston (SC) single house is way different than a Colonial Saltbox of New England. But you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the suburbs of these areas apart.

  18. Scott July 25, 2020 at 12:34 pm #

    Ha. Just thought of another example. IMO the Geary-designed Weisman Art Museum at the UofMN is both bad design and unattractive. It’s frustrating how the building interacts with the E. River Parkway and Washington Ave at street level. Apparently, Geary thought everyone would arrive by car. Yet, the building design is world renowned and helped put Geary on the map and elevate the Weisman in the region.

  19. A. Paddock July 26, 2020 at 3:14 pm #

    I strongly disagree about that insurance building. I always thought it look weird, and it’s not that pretty. Any typical four-story walk up built a hundred years ago in the city is nicer to look at, but then even mediocre architecture from the pre-Depression ear looks better than most of the “best” architecture of the modern era. At least, that’s how I’ve always felt, and that’s from someone who knows nothing about architecture and doesn’t even have a associates degree. I think the Depression and WWII finished off the idea of beauty that the Great War mortally wounded.

    I also agree with another commentator that Saint Paul has done a bit better at preserving its older buildings. Crocus Hill is an amazing place to walk around, and example of what a pretty neighborhood can look like. To think, they wanted to tear it all down at one point for a freeway. Yeah, I think the great wars of the first half of the 20th century did some serious brain damage.

  20. Lou Miranda July 27, 2020 at 11:28 pm #

    Cities design parks & park buildings & infrastructure to be beautiful.

    Cities design streetlamps to be beautiful.

    Cities design bridges & overpasses to be beautiful (I’ll take downtown St. Paul over downtown Mpls any day).

    Why shouldn’t we have the same high standards for buildings where we live, work, & play?

    That’s not to say that every building has to be a work of art (corners matter more than interior block buildings, for example), but we can demand a modicum of beauty—even if it’s just the first floor, where pedestrians see & interact most.

    Good style doesn’t mean any particular style. It can be new or old, clean or cluttered (up to a point). Seemingly little things like recessed windows rather than flush with the building can make a big difference.

    You can even take an old house, replace the old windows with new flush plate glass windows that don’t open, replace lap siding with stucco from bottom to top with no lines to break it up, and destroy the beauty of that house. Details matter.

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