Why Your City Looks Ugly AF
In case you couldn't tell by my jaded cynicism towards the film industry and insufferable snobbery, I live in Los Angeles. Recently, between a meditation session with the Mindfulness Maharishi of my spirituality-focused initiative and my appointment for a medicinal gong-ringing, I was able to take the subway (yes, LA has a subway) to Little Tokyo for a big ol' bowl of ramen -- the good shit, not the twenty-five cent brick of noodle-shaped styrofoam and sodium you're thinking of. And as I was crossing the street, I noticed something.
Behind me was LA City Hall, which looks like this...
...and in front me was the headquarters for Caltrans District 7, which looks like this:
I was struck by the stark difference between the two. Why does one look like Minas Tirith and the other look like a DMV for the Borg? Or, for those of us who didn't have sex in high school, why does one look like a beautiful altar where blood sacrifices were made to a forgotten Canaanite god and the other looks like a jail for Cubists convicted of tax fraud -- the most boring crime?
After going to the library to read up on architecture, giving up on that because those books are boring as fuck and have virtually no nudity whatsoever, and then doing as much Googling as I could be bothered to do before it started to interfere with my new Coronoa-lockdown-induced video games-and-cranking-it schedule, I found out I'm not the first person to write about this: here's a brilliant article written by someone much smarter than me about the same issue, but I can promise you that my article will have far more jokes about my boner.
You Hate Modern Architecture
Quick! What's the best building? The correct answer is, of course, my buddy Roundhouse's place, which has both a Karate Room and a homemade slide from the second story balcony directly into the above-ground pool. But, statistically speaking, you said your favorite building was the Empire State Building. The American Institute of Architects conducted a public poll asking people what their favorite building in America is. Going over the list, you might notice how few Modernist buildings there are. The first building I'd really consider to be "modern architecture" is the Rose Center for Earth and Space, all the way down at 33. Now before you rush down to the comments to yell at me for using terms like "Modern," "Post-Modern," "Brutalist," and "Contemporary" interchangeably, I'd like to offer a brief rebuttal: come the fuck on, you know what I mean.
Anyway, here's another interesting poll -- this one conducted by Business Insider and asking people to vote for the ugliest building in their state. Most of them are what you might broadly call "modern architecture." Blocky monstrosities of twisted metal and glass, like if someone decided to live in the aftermath of Mini Cooper hitting a speed bump at six miles per hour. I mean, look at this shit:
What the hell, right? This knifepile is the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. I try to keep an open mind about art. Despite being from the Midwest I don't want to be the type of person that rolls their eyes at art that is even the least bit challenging. There's plenty of modern architecture that I like. I even like the big dumb pyramid in front of the Louvre, even if I don't think it's as beautiful as the original building:
Especially when compared to Paris' Contemporary Art Museum, which looks like a Dr. Seuss factory:
The point here is that most modern architecture strikes my uneducated plebeian eye as being an ugly, discordant collision of metallic angles. And statistically speaking, I'm in the majority here.
Common People Aren't Deciding What Buildings Look Like
Modern architecture is ugly. If you live in a large city, you can probably think of a few examples of what I'm talking about. So if we think modern architecture is ugly, why does it keep getting built? Well, here's another interesting article from Business Insider. This one also has people voting for their favorite buildings -- but instead of being ignorant Johnny Hayseeds like you and me, only architects voted in this one. And while there are some really beautiful buildings on this list, there's also far fewer buildings like the Washington National Cathedral and the Biltmore Estate and much more shit like this
I know art is subjective and there's no accounting for taste, but I mean ... come on. COME ON. That last one looks like it was drawn by a six-year-old! Okay, so architects know so much about buildings that maybe they can appreciate more daring designs than us normies. I'm trying to give a fair shake to architects here, which is much more than they give us. When architects saw that last of people's favorite buildings, they said "This isn't necessarily the design professional's view of the best buildings, but the emotional connection to where people live and work and play." In other words, "Yeah, idiots! Stop liking buildings just because they make you feel good! You morons. You intractable dumbasses. What's next? Liking food that tastes good? Maybe I'll respect your opinions when you get a Gunther Ford design airbrushed onto the side of your van instead of a huge-breasted woman riding a tiger, you hookworm-ridden carny."
Maybe you've heard the axiom that "form follows function." This is usually attributed to Louis Sullivan, though he may have been paraphrasing an even older quote. Particularly post-WWII, this became a rallying cry not just for architecture, but for the modernist movement in general. That is to say, there was a broad artistic movement that felt that in order to move into the future, we must discard the sentimental pretensions of the past. Louis Sullivan, by the way, made buildings that look like this:
Probably not the soul-crushing utilitarian concrete cube you were expecting, right? Keep in mind that the early Modernist architecture movement also yielded buildings like this:
Which I actually think looks pretty kickass. It looks like the place you'd fight the final boss in a Fallout game. So what went wrong?
Modern Architecture isn't Just Ugly, It's Also Hard to Live In
It's possible you actually like these ass-ugly buildings. Maybe you don't think the Sears Tower is ugly. I say to that what I say to people who find Adam Driver attractive: do you actually find it appealing or do you just like it because it's tall? Because the issue with this architecture isn't just that it's so soul-destroyingly grim that, for example, the Brunel University Lecture Center would make Kafka think we were laying it on a bit thick:
Weirdly, architecture that's ostensibly predicated around being as brutally functional as possible actually kind of sucks ass at being a building. Not only is it ugly, it's bad at its job -- and I gotta say I don't appreciate these buildings stealing my schtick.
These buildings, especially in the brutalist tradition, tend to have very little green spaces. They're not comfortable because they're not designed to be lived in -- they're designed to be the distilled idea of a building, not a real, functional building where people live. Consider Philip Johnson's famous Glass House:
Unlike most of the examples I've cherrypicked so far to prove my point, I think this house is beautiful. But as a house, it kind of sucks. First of all, where am I supposed to crank it? It's all windows! And there's virtually no storage space -- the cost of maintaining that sterile sensibility is giving up pretty much all material possessions. And if you think about it, why is that the vast majority of buildings across almost every culture in all of human history have had pitched roofs rather than flat ones? And the answer is because of the rain, duh. Turns out the Glass House leaks like a brown paper lunchbag full of illegally-harvested lungs. And a pure glass house is going to last about ten minutes before it becomes pocked with the bloodspatters of hundreds of very confused and very dead birds. You'd have to hire someone specifically to sweep up the piles of owl corpses every morning. So if famous architect Philip Johnson wants to lecture people about how to build their homes, he should ... uh ... I feel like there's a perfectly trenchant idiom about glass houses that applies here, but I can't think over the sound of all these endangered birds slamming Into the walls.
More Than Practical Considerations
There's more at stake than ugly, poorly-designed buildings. These buildings are making us hate our lives. One of the most interesting things I learned from the article I linked earlier was that in 1982 there was a debate at the Harvard Design School between two architects. One, Christopher Alexander, advocated for architecture that used ornamentation to make the observer feel beauty and the occupant feel comfort. The other, much more famous architect, was Peter Eisenman, who...well, he built this:
At one point in the debate they begin discussing Moneo's Logrono Town Hall, which looks like this:
Alexander, the 'good guy,' said this building "intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity." Eisenman agreed. Alexander's response? "I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world." And, well, I think Alexander was sorta right. Besides all the things we've talked about that make modernist architecture shitty, there's one more consideration -- these buildings are making us miserable.
Now, I've only ever taken a single college-level psychology course, but like everyone that has I'm absolutely certain that it explains everything about human beings. So allow me to bust out some Psych 101 here and bring up the Harlow Wire Mother. If you're not familiar with this famous experiment, it's where a scientist got his hands on some adorable teeny tiny lil baby monkeys and then inflicted severe psychological trauma on them, For Science. The most famous experiment involved giving the monklets two different "mothers" to choose from: one wrapped in comforting soft cloth, and the other a harsh wire skeleton. Overwhelmingly, the baby monkeys chose the soft mother, even when only the wire mother provided food.
Am I vastly oversimplifying? Yes. Am I also going to irresponsibly extrapolate data from a single experiment about baby monkeys into broad truisms about all of humanity? Buddy you better believe it. Because what I'm getting at here is that in the arena of urban development, the idea of "comfort" seems to have been largely demoted from Literal Necessity to Frivolous Luxury. But comfort is important. It's why I exclusively wipe my ass with county fair quilts and get thirteen hours of sleep a night. Beauty is subjective, but surely an attempt to beautify our cities would at least relieve some of the crushing misery or urban life? At the very least, fewer buildings in the Concrete Mistake school of architecture could only help.
Art vs. Function, Democracy vs. Authoritarianism
Now we're in a bit of pickle, because what can be done about the proliferation of ugly architecture? The Trump administration has, unsurprisingly, offered a solution that actually makes things worse: they've drafted an executive order that would put disallow modern architectural designs on federal buildings and make Neoclassical the default style. Which is not only un-democratic, it's also, frankly, kinda fashy -- since the word facism is itself an invocation of ancient Rome. If that seems like a stretch, it's not. Stay on the internet long enough and you'll learn that Romaboos' fetishzation of the Eternal City has a lot less to do with democratic values and a lot more to do with authoritarianism and imperialism. Weirdly, right-wing Rome nerds always seem to have a blindspot for the worker uprisings and the mind-boggling amount of gay sex that went on.
Surely there must be a middle-ground between grim, utilitarian cheaply-made hellscapes that don't actually offer that much utility and ahistorical strongman cosplay, right? Maybe, just maybe, the public should have more say in what our cities look like, particularly public buildings. Maybe we could vote on proposals of what we want our buildings to look like? I mean, sure, that runs the risk of 4Chan brigading the polls and making all of our buildings look like this:
There's video of the whole fireworks show, but you had to put in a credit card number for more than this.
But even with the ever present danger of vote brigading turning our cities into dickjungles, I think it could be worth giving the public greater say in what their cities look like. Here in LA in 2016 we voted to pass a bill that increased sales tax to fund an expansion of our Metro system, or as New Yorkers call it, "da unnagroun' piss-circus -- ayy, I'm walkin' 'ere!" I'm sorry, I shouldn't make hacky jokes about New York. (They have it hard enough what with their pizza being a Kraft single cheese byproduct melted on a greaselogged shingle and all.) Deciding that we want more subway stops is a step in the right direction; hopefully next they'll let us decide what they look like, because I suspect that if given the option the public would prefer less of a concrete bunker that evil scientists use to induce claustrophobia with what appears to be the preserved corpses of children suspended from the ceiling...
...and more of a Russian underground train palace which looks like it could be the setting of an Eyes Wide Shut-type situation as easily as a place where sad cold Russians gather to go to the endless soul-crushing drudgery of work or the endless soul-crushing drudgery of their home life, where babushka always puts too much salt in the borscht:
Ultimately, Modern architecture seems like an unfortunate fad with an exceptionally long shelf life because acceptance of abysmally unadorned buildings are a dream come true for a capitalist system that wants to cut any corner it can. I understand, I think, where the modern architects are coming from. Life is ugly, and art should reflect that. I don't want every movie to be a saccharine Disney lovefest, because that's not an accurate reflection of the whole of the human condition. But I also don't want every damn movie I watch to be A Serbian Film. But maybe making terrible buildings isn't just reflecting the misery of life; maybe it's actively contributing to it. I mean, living in a city is already killing us and driving us insane.
Or maybe I just want there to be more cool pyramids and castles and shit.
Top image: Sorn340 Studio Images/Shutterstock