Sunday, June 27, 2021

Modern architecture: Ugliness is Beauty

There's a joke about contemporary architecture schools (which I've related before) that goes something like this: The purpose of architecture schools these days is to graduate tortured geniuses who design one-of-a-kind buildings which have no relationship to their surroundings. But I think the joke is on us. Board after board, commission after commission, and company after company have approved the most hideous buildings, believing they were being forward-thinking, open-minded and on the leading edge.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, observed that art both reflects and instructs the society in which it is embedded. The cartoonish buildings which now deface the American skyline and those in many cities around the world reflect a fundamental disturbance in the mind of the architectural community. But they also reflect the minds of those who approved these buildings, minds which appear untethered to any sense of historical continuity or human connection.

That is the curse of an age which believes it has now freed itself from the past. We have lost all perspective and anchoring. And, instead of being free, we have become bewitched characters in an Orwellian fantasy in which ugliness is beauty and love of beauty is some kind of pathologically naive attachment to bourgeois values—values which have no sympathy for the rising democratic spirit of the age.

The essay "Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture" provides essential background for this development:

A few obvious stylistic changes characterize postwar architecture. For one, what is (now somewhat derisively) called "ornament" disappeared. At the dawn of the 20th century, American architect Louis Sullivan proclaimed the famous maxim that "form follows function." Even though Sullivan’s own buildings were often highly ornate, adorned with elaborate Art Nouveau ironwork and Celtic-inspired masonry, "form follows function" was instantly misinterpreted as a call for stark utilitarian simplicity. A few years later, architect and theorist Adolph Loos, in a 1908 essay called "Ornament and Crime," dramatically declared that a lack of ornamentation was a "sign of spiritual strength."  These two ideas quickly became dogmas of the architectural profession. A generation of architects with both socialistic and fascistic political leanings saw ornament as a sign of bourgeois decadence and cultural indulgence, and began discarding every design element that could be considered "mere decoration."

Mirror, mirror IS the wall

The result is that we end up with building exteriors that are often featureless (think: mirrored glass all the way up) and on a scale which is so overwhelming that instead of being filled with an empowering democratic spirit, we feel like puny cogs in some Borg-assimilated machine culture. For the uninitiated, the Borg are a fictional race appearing in the Star Trek television series. The Borg are cybernetically enhanced beings amalgamated from numerous conquered civilizations and coordinated by a shared mind. They pack a lot of firepower wherever they go, and they are fond of saying: "Resistance is futile."

Brutal: Boston Government Service Center

When you stand in front of a building like the Boston Government Service Center, you really do feel that resistance is futile—so much so that the building seems designed to create traffic for the mental health services available there. The architectural style is called Brutalism. I've been there. It's brutal.

Where we live, what we see, what we think and feel when we survey our surroundings matters. The buildings we live and work in ought to invite us in and make us feel that we belong there.

But, the idea that we should be nurtured and delighted by the buildings we live and work in has become a largely foreign idea. The tall, sleek, modern structures which make up much of our modern city centers look as though they are part of a vast mini-storage business, designed to pack in as much stuff and, in this case, as many people as possible.

That is the logic of much modern office and apartment building architecture: to maximize cash flow per square foot without regard to the needs of the people who use them. And, showy entrances do little to mitigate the rabbit warrens which typically constitute the remainder of such buildings.

Spaces that would invite people to encounter one another and to stop and talk are essentially wasted spaces since you can't really rent them (unless they are "community rooms" which are to be rented for pre-appointed gatherings).

Notre Dame Before the Fire

Those who look at a Gothic cathedral and say we could never build anything so grand today are right. The skills required to make such a building have all but died out. But what has also died out is a desire to build for the ages.

In our own age, even our tallest, weightiest buildings are not built to last. We can expect many of our modern "colossal" but faceless structures to disappear within a lifetime. As this New Yorker magazine cartoon aptly quips: "Great design, but when the time comes, a bitch to implode." (I would happily implode the building depicted on day one.)

Buildings have become disposable. They are playthings for highly leveraged real estate companies looking to extract huge sums for their managers and shareholders. The logic of capitalism has turned buildings into nothing more than ATMs for the wealthy who own them.

I confess to being aligned with what is called New Urbanism, especially in its respect for continuity, its desire for creating places (and not mere spaces), and its de-emphasis of the automobile. In my view it seeks to create places that have what I call a human face and a human scale.

Modern architecture is a reflection of an age governed by the top-down application of concepts rather than the bottom-up integration of experience. I believe that the revulsion that so many of us feel against modern architecture is an instinctual sense that it violates our experiential understanding of how the built environment should work. And, I believe much of the social and political tumult around the world today is a reflection of an instinctual desire to remake our social, political and, yes, our built environment to comport with what our experience tells us is consonant with human thriving.

Every attempt is being made to stamp that desire out. But I do not think those attempts will ultimately succeed.


Photo Credits:

All photos from Wikimedia Commons. 

Mirror, mirror IS the wall: Orange County Office Building by Catatonique under this license.

Brutal: Boston Government Service Center: By Gunnar Klack under this license.

Notre Dame Before the Fire: By Sanchezn under this license.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Hi Kurt,
You´re probably aware of James Howard Kunstler´s ´´eyesore of the month´´ feature on his blog ´clusterfuck nation´; the ugliness and hostility of the modern built environment is on of the main topics he writes about. If you´re not, check it out:
Two great examples of what you´re talking about in this weeks blog are these:
Frank from Germany

Frank Warnock said...

Kurt: Kunstler, here, gives the greatest TED Talk of all time. 19 min:

This should make a greatest quotes list somewhere: "The cartoonish buildings which now deface the American skyline and those in many cities around the world reflect a fundamental disturbance in the mind of the architectural community".

Thanks soooo much for such a great article. I will share broadly.

King of the Road said...

Not a comment of substance but I have to point out that the Borg saying is "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." Leaving off the second phrase significantly reduces the impact. And I would say that it applies here as well.

Kurt Cobb said...

King of the Road,

Thanks for reminding me that no matter how bad we think things are, they are actually a hundred times worse! We have been and continue to be assimilated/hoodwinked by the architectural establishment.

Chris Kuykendall said...

The linked article by Rennix and Robinson touched my cantankerous "Why are things designed badly compared to before?" button. Obviously, from Cobb plus Rennix and Robinson, architecture. Our last elegant building in downtown Austin was One American Center. That was followed by the skyscraper sometimes referred to as the Batmobile. But I repeatedly find myself objecting also to, for example, website design especially, or, alternatively, the "fixin' of what ain't broke" occasional re-designs of a perfectly okay website. Most recently I encountered eyeglass lens cleaner bottles re-design at a prominent frame and lens crafting retail chain (PET bottled water bottle plastic, from China, average recycling 29%, transparent so that you can tell when it's about empty, switched to HOPE milk jug plastic, from Italy, average recycling 29%, opaque so that you can't). Then I've searched for years on the Internet, and in stores, for vintage 60s, 70s, or 80s gym shorts. The latest buy from another well-known chain, a clothing mail-order retailer located in Wisconsin, was a waste. Hint: Besides the waist measurement, and the length from the crotch to hem, what's also very important but they don't tell you the measurement of is the length from the waist to the crotch. What I bought was an inch less than yesteryear, which...uh...makes a difference, negatively so. Telling myself, as a result, what Jerry Seinfeld told Kramer: "I don't want your boys down there."

Querqus PNW said...

Long time reader here, practicing architect since 2006.
I encounter the idea that "traditional buildings are better" pretty often, and I have some sympathy for this sentiment, having come from a Historic Preservation background. I do love old buildings and am a supporter of preservation and adaptive reuse. IMO, there are a number of reasons people respond to positively to old bldgs: often the scale is smaller, there is ornament, there is a sense of history/continuity, use of "natural materials" (wood, brick, stone vs aluminum, composites, etc).
When it comes to "modern architecture" I think there needs to be a distinction made between a) "Historic Modern Bldgs*" (Modernism is a 100+ year old "style" with many varieties) and b) Contemporary building construction, and point out that
c) Contemporary buildings are, in general, more energy efficient than they have ever been, in some cases net-zero. I'm a bit of a climate change pessimist, but it is heartening to see this trend.
There are certainly reasons to criticize "Modern" architecture in its various forms, but I have to push back strongly one of the assumptions in the essay.
"But, the idea that we should be nurtured and delighted by the buildings we live and work in has become a largely foreign idea."
This statement is simplistic and inaccurate, I can tell you from personal experience that in general, architects work very hard to create spaces both interior and exterior that are both pleasing to the eye, functional and respectful of their surroundings (we are often trying to "repair" dysfunctional public spaces).
There are many reasons that contemporary buildings do not look like "old" bldgs: contemporary building systems, building codes, zoning and construction methods are all very different than they were 30, 60, 100 years ago.

Querqus PNW said...

part 3
*Historic Modern Buildings, as I'm referring to them here, are the modernist buildings created between roughly 1920-1980 or so. During this era Modernism itself went through many phases, including Bauhaus, Art Deco (Lincoln Center), International Modernism (think glass & steel), Regional Modernism (Scandinavian, e.g.), Brutalism, High-Tech, Streamline Moderne, Deconstructivism, "Post-Modernism" and more. In most of these sub-movements there are many fine examples of buildings. At the same time as the aesthetic movements were changing, building technology also advanced rapidly, and the inclusion of ever more systems within buildings made construction and design much more complex. And, as societies began to understand the impacts of fossil fuel extraction and use, buildings were required to become more energy efficient, while delivering a level of thermal comfort (heating and cooling) that residents/bldg users had (rightly, for the most part) come to expect. The first big round of energy efficient design approaches took place in the 1970s. BTW it's worth noting that one of the drivers of early Modernism was the desire to provide ample daylighting and ventilation, which led to the increasing use of large areas of glass. It's also worth noting that "traditional" buildings, while often adapted to local climate, did not provide anything close to the thermal comfort we have come to expect of contemporary buildings. The biggest improvement in energy efficiency was due to improved thermal performance (less air leakage, insulation of walls/roof & thermally efficient windows). However, some of the early attempts at sealing and insulating bldgs led to moisture issues, sometimes leading to building failure, or unhealthy interiors (mold). So, the field of Building Science was created to study how building envelopes work - this is a whole field within Arch/Engineering/Construction. Many localities have pretty good thermal envelope requirements in their building codes these days, which have incorporated many of the lessons learned from early insulation. In addition to energy/comfort, there are systems for fire detection/suppression, lighting, plumbing, internet, & other "smart" features, and of course accommodating cars. A typical set of drawings for a sizable contemporary building may be several hundred pages, with multiple disciplines, compared to drawing sets I have seen from the early 1900s, which may have less than 100 pages.
Final note: RE "Eyesore of the Month" - I read JHK's "The Geography of Nowhere" in the late 1990s and really enjoyed it - one of the books that got me on the path to Architecture. So it's been sad to see JHK devolve into a conspiracy spouting kook, and the comment section - yikes.

Kurt Cobb said...

Querqus PNW,

Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed comments. Unfortunately, I inadvertently deleted part 2 of your comment. If you are able to repost it, I will make sure it gets into the comments.

I have received some similar pushback from friends and colleagues privately and appreciate the opportunity to expand my thinking. I hasten to agree that not all modern buildings fail to match our human needs.

Unknown said...

Part 2 of my comments:
When we talk about "Architecture", it's often Public Bldgs that are being discussed: Civic/government, museums, commercial/office, institutional, healthcare, etc, as opposed to Housing (single family subdivisions, townhouses, high-end residences). There are certainly designers out there who want to push the envelope and create "look at me" bldgs (Frank Gehry comes to mind), and, clients who want a bldg that stands out. There are also many very skilled designers who take into account local context, building massing and orientation, materials & colors, integration of public & private spaces, clear & open sightlines, intuitive wayfinding, daylighting, etc, while trying to fit all the elements of the building program into a limited site, with limited time and limited budget. Most public buildings are also subject to design review, where feedback from various stakeholders is responded to and incorporated into the design. Inefficient use of space is not acceptable, construction cost is a very, very big factor, and accommodating automobiles (curb cuts, driveways, parking spaces) has a very big impact on the design of the bldg (look around next time you are in a parking garage - column spacing is optimized to fit the most spaces along with driving aisles). We also live in an era of multi-pluralism in design, i.e. there is no one "correct style". At its best, contemporary Architecture delivers efficient, pleasing, pragmatic & honest buildings. That the aesthetics are not always to everyone's liking is to be expected. Personally, I tend to appreciate well thought out and "clean" design that recedes rather than jumps out. I am also a big fan of the integration of contemporary additions to existing bldgs, where you see the contrast between old & new. It's very easy to find examples of bad design out there (endless strip malls and subdivisions come to mind), but they are often a result of zoning and automobile oriented design. Next time you are in a sizable urban center, look closely at some of the more contemporary bldgs, there may be more to appreciate than you realize.
For examples of contemporary architecture I like to browse Dezeen, which has some very nice projects - granted many are high-design single family houses, but still nice.

Unknown said...

I have re-posted "part 2" of my comments.

Kurt Cobb said...


Thanks for reposting "Part 2" and giving us all access to your complete comments.