Contemporary architecture-- why so blah?

Okay, so it’s not the most original observation. But I had the opportunity to hike around my local downtown area today, and it’s been on my mind since. I’d walk past a decrepit, urine-stinky block of squatty little abandoned 1930s-era buildings, and think to myself, “Man, I wish I had a digital camera right now! Look at those cornices! Is that inlaid tilework up there? Amazing!” Then I’d walk past the new SmoothCorp building, its construction presumably backed by all the financial might of a modern multinational corporation, and think to myself, “Man, I wish I had a time machine right now! There were probably some nice-looking buildings here years ago, just like the stinky block back there! I wonder if the library is open yet?”

Somewhere in the upscale, revitalized outer ring satellite communities of the Inferno, there’s a Semicircle devoted solely to people who worked to make the world a significantly less attractive place while on Earth. Ruthless 19th-century strip-mine owners and lumber company executives toil for eternity side-by-side with concussive car-stereo guys and whoever invented the lime-green polyester pantsuit. And in the middle of all this, there is (or will be) some guy who once thought, “Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing in the world if this office building I’m designing right now looks just like a huge, featureless glass box?”

So now, decades later, we are all forced to live with that sad bastard’s legacy; where, no matter if it be a hotel, office building, or fine arts museum, it is virtually guaranteed to be designed with all the elegance of a multilevel parking garage. Sometimes you can’t even tell the difference at first glance. (Hint: the parking garages are the buildings with more concrete and little to no glass.)

What the hell happened? Sometime in the 1960s, the last vapors of Art Deco burned away, and after that… nothing. Oh every once in a while someone puts up a building that looks a bit interesting, kind of, from a certain angle-- but you get the sense that it’s almost apologetic on the part of the architect: “I’m just going to give this structure the vague outline of a visually engaging building, if that’s okay. I promise not to make it look appealing under closer examination.” Most of them aren’t even interesting enough to be ugly.

Something happened to kill off the joy of architecture, that’s certain: the evidence is as obvious as the K-T boundary. Was it the Cold War? The awareness that, no matter how much effort you put into a building, it could all vanish instantly in a radioactive hydrogen cloud, so why even bother? Was it the increasing pace of the business world, where the headquarters of one company could be bought out by someone else next week?

Because not too long ago, architects worked to give even the most humble buildings a certain elan. I’m not even talking about the big public projects like courthouses, banks, churches, railroad stations-- although these institutions were all infinitely more pleasing to the eye as well in days of yore, aside from the horse dung problem. I’m talking about some of these little three-story downtown buildings, probably built around 1900 or thereabouts: they weren’t intended to be monuments to their craft. They probably started out as pharmacies, offices, warehouses, etc. They are made of bricks. Uniform, cheap, dull, monotonous, identical bricks. And yet even here, without exception, the architects went to the trouble of jazzing up the designs here and there-- staggered rows, multicolored brick patterns, the occasional marble inclusion, needlessly arched windows that must have given the glaziers fits. Was there much pride in working as a bricklayer in those days? Perhaps not, but you’d never know it from the fruits of their labor.

Even as recently as 50 years ago, relatively inconsequential buildings like service stations could be high-flown sculptural monuments to Art Deco principles. I’ve been trying in vain to step outside my cultural preconceptions and imagine a future where our modern gas stations will be considered objects of style and beauty, but so far it ain’t happening.

I visited the Ringling Museum in Sarasota FL a while ago. It’s an impressive collection of historical buildings, built by John Ringling of circus fame. He built a lavish Venetian Gothic seaside mansion, called Ca’d’Zan (supposedly “House of John” in Venetian) which fell into disrepair after his death but has since been restored. He was also an avid art collector, so there’s also an art museum on property, housing a diverse collection of works; the museum itself is designed in the style of a Roman villa. (Since he was a circus mogul, there’s also a circus museum on property-- two, in fact-- but that doesn’t really enter into my subscreed.)

Anyhoo. For many years the main gate to Ca’D’Zan-- an ornate, decorative affair in the same style as the main house-- had been closed off, and the entrance to the grounds was through the art museum itself. So a couple-few years back, they finally managed to scrape together enough donations to restore the main gate and construct a welcome center. So now, you walk through the main gate–this beautiful, elaborate arch with its magnificent Venetian colored tile inlay-- and up to the visitor’s center… which looks like ASS! I mean, goddamn, it looks like an airport terminal or an optometry center or something! Right up next to this genuinely attractive architecture, the result is downright painful! Did they not even consider trying to soften the appearance, at all?! Supposedly there’s an historic Italian theatre interior housed somewhere inside. Too bad the exterior looks like the box my stereo came in.

Don’t even get me started on the “addition” to the art museum itself. At least there they seemingly tried to make it blend, a little, sort of, before giving up. Except for the ALUMINUM ROOF and the HIGHLY VISIBLE TRUCK LOADING DOCK, which most Roman villas probably did not feature.

Modern houses are also unpleasant to look at, at least here in Florida. Up to the 1960s or so, builders were still using elements of Spanish architecture, with lots of heavy tile and stucco. It wasn’t much, but it was something-- at least it was a style you could look at. Maybe the developments back then only used twelve basic floorplans, but they were livable, realistically scaled floorplans. Now I look at these new housing developments, and I don’t even know what you’d call it. Bloviated Contemporary? Neo-Drywall? Hurricane Magnetic? Because you can look at these houses and just tell-- one big storm, and the foundation might still be there. Those cartoonishly wide pillars aren’t going to keep out the storm surge, buddy. And didn’t people used to have yards? At what point did it become mandatory for the house to occupy *every square foot * of property? Why the hell do you need fifteen-foot-high ceilings in your foyer?

So. Um… In summary: today’s architecture = suck.

Maybe it’s the same story with all the other arts. But here’s the thing, architects: the other arts are smaller. They mostly fit inside buildings, so the rest of us don’t have to look at them. But we do have to look at your buildings. Which, as previously noted, suck.

It’s a new millenium, architects. Do you really want to carry the legacy of Mike Brady into the 21st century? Of course not. The rest of us expect decent-looking buildings again, and if you have to go all the way back to 1930 and start over from scratch, then get moving.

One suggestion: MORE CORNICES. You really lost it when you abandoned cornices.

I’d say that it’s mostly due to cost. The labor to build those buildings was cheap in pre-WWII United States. In the postwar US, with unprecedented numbers of people going to college and moving into the white collar workforce, the cost of skilled trades, including bricklaying, mortar, finish construction, et cetera also went up, while at the same time there was an unquenchable demand for both commercial and residential construction which continues through today (though with the noted recent downturn).

Pasadena, where I live, is full of these beautiful old Craftsman-style houses. Most of them aren’t big, especially by modern standards, but they’re solid, well-built, beautifully appointed houses with hardwood floors, plaster-and-lathe walls, wood appointments, et cetera. You couldn’t build one of these houses today for any reasonable amount of money. And these were fairly average, if nice houses, comparable in status to the generic, tossed together, gypsum board tract housing today. Commercial and campus architecture is even worse; the skills necessary to build the grand old Art Deco office buildings or brownstone buildings is all but lost, and hiring trained craftsman to do the necessary work would be inordinately expensive.

It’s not all money, though; certainly, especially during the 'Fifties and 'Sixties, the idea of uniformity and modern industry tended toward very uniform, mechanical designs. A few architects like Frank Lloyd Wright tried to do something appealing with modern architecture, but many followers seemed to borrow the method while missing the fundaments. And then there are abominations like Frank Gehry’s Strata Center at MIT, the Walt Disney Center in Los Angeles, and Dancing House in Prague. This guy is like the shock-jock of architects, vomiting up one awful building after another under the assumption that different and inimitable must be good. That sort of crap makes you thankful for just “blah”.


I think there are a few principles at work:

  1. Every age has its crap. The crappy “old” buildings tend to be gone. The good stuff endures. The crappy newer buildings are still around.

  2. Aesthetic tastes change as a reflection of values. For instance, highly decorative architecture died rather abruptly in 1929 because displaying wealth wasn’t so beautiful all of the sudden. (There are exceptions.) Buildings that today look like ugly glass boxes were, in the 1950s, considered beautiful because they spoke of corporate efficiency & technological progress. What we today consider beautiful will no doubt look ugly in a generation or two.

  3. Materials like brick, stone & terra cotta age beautifully. Steel, aluminum & glass generally don’t, especially without proper maintenance.

And I can’t resist saying: Stranger, with regard to Gehry, you could not be any more wrong IMO.

shrug Tastes vary. But you can’t deny that Gehry designs stick out like a sore thumb, and anyone who has stood in the painful reflective glare of the Disney Center will agree that Gehry doesn’t give a crap about how comfortable or useful his buildings are; only that they look good in wide shots. Compare the flowing, sweeping curves of Guggenheim New York (one of Wright’s most exotic and modernistic designs) to the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which is one of Gehry’s least offensive projects. Gehry’s design is kind of…interesting…at first and from a distance, but it’s ultimately jarring and discordant, uncomfortable to occupy and eventually looking like the wreckage of metal salvage yard explosion. Gehry’s designs have also been long noted for having major environmental problems like poor circulation and leaking (unsurprising, given the bizarre intrusive angles and lack of attention to the ambient environment). Architects like Wright tried to make their buildings complement the surroundings while being original and artful. Gehry seems to just make you want to think, “Hey, Frank Gehry must have build that; it looks like a couple of three year olds drew it up with crayons.”

Believe me, before the Stata Center debacle, I tried to “get” Gehry. After that, I realized he’s just an architectural jerk who cares nothing for how habitable or friendly to pedestrians his designs are.


Have you been to the Stata Center? I saw pictures of models, and computer-generated images, and really didn’t care much for it. It’s very different in person. I work a few blocks from there, and I’ve been in and around the Stata a few times. Looking at a model, with a birds-eye view of the entire structure, all the eccentric angles can be very unharmonious. Up close, you really only see one feature or facet at a time. I like it. I’ve seen the Fred-and-Ginger house in Prague, too, but just walking past it at night, and I like it too.

Three reasons that come to my mind. First, as mentioned, is cost. Cookie cutter boxes cost less, I would think.

Second is the general belief in much of the modern arts that what most people consider beauty doesn’t matter, or is even a negative. If you think something is dull or ugly, that means you aren’t perceptive enough, or are too married to Western Imperialist Values, not that the artist/architect is talentless.

And third, the widespread desire to avoid offending anyone, which inevitably results in dullness.

With respect to housing, I think one of the factors is that modern housing takes into consideration a number of factors that were unknown, or ignored, by our forebears.

In the past, the way to cool an inside space in a building was to make it as tall as possible, to allow the worst of the heat to rise out of the living space. And when fireplaces were the way to heat a space, the cieling would be as low as possible, to keep the heat close to where people were. Depending upon the climate a building would be built for maximum comfort for either summer or winter conditions.

These days, with central heating, and the common use of air conditioning, the goal is to provide adequate space without leaving large voids that will be inefficient for heating or cooling.

Similarly, those picturesque towers on, say, Victorian houses look great, and fascinating, but are usually impossible to keep comfortable.

I been to the Stata, and I hated it. I thought it looked tacky and cheap, like a Disney attraction, and totally out of place on the rest of the campus and in general in Cambridge. Not that MIT has a lot of notable campus architecture, but the it at least looks like a school. The Stata Center looks like a Jetsons version of a strip mall. I haven’t seen the Dancing House in person, but the window boxes sticking out from the angled surface on both buildings just look cheap and are prone to collecting dirt and serving as a nesting spot for pigeons (which I also hate with a passion).

Maybe it’s just me, then (and the man’s neighbors with whom he has apparently had numerous confrontations over his garbage dump-looking home) but Gehry’s “designs” make me avert my eyes lest I get a headache.


You say “boring.” I say “refreshingly clean lines.” Architecture is an art; it continues to evolve, just like painting and music. There are minimalist movements in those media as well. Some of the minimalist stuff sucks; some of it is great. And so it goes.

That building is the archetectural equivalent of one of those disjointed stories made up by a dozen people, each of who can only see the last few words of the sentence made before theirs. Or a Mad Lib, or something.

But in this day and age, it’s all about “value engineering”. That means using poured concrete instead of limestone. Brick pavers instead of actual bricks. Stoney façades instead of actual stone. Aluminum fences painted black instead of rought iron.

My area is a historic district, and you can easily tell which houses were vacant lots just a few years ago by looking at the feeble attempts at adding ornate details to the façades. They did a poor job of it, IMO.

A few years ago, my local news channel ran a special on special architecture in our city. One of the most fascinating points of interest was the sewer and storm drain system underground. Beautifully arched and detailed brickwork abounds in these subterranean rivers where precious few people will ever see them. Odd, that.

I’m not entirely convinced that cost is the heart of the matter. Obviously it’s cheaper to not bother with decoration or aesthetics at all-- but that didn’t stop those guys in 1900 from trying to make their icehouses and office buildings at least minimally stylish. I also don’t believe that all those little derelict buildings downtown were the “cream of the crop,” that they’ve been preserved all this time because they were so much more outstandingly designed. I can look at photographs of the downtown area from that era, and pretty much all the buildings looked like that, except the ones for rich folks which were consequently much nicer.

Perhaps there aren’t enough skilled craftsmen out there to fill that role anymore-- although bricklaying, at least, hasn’t exactly gone totally out of style. The supermarket/strip mall across the way from me has a brick facing, and I don’t see what kept them from being as creative with the brickwork as those guys back in 1900. Needless to say, they weren’t.

But even if that’s the case in general, surely modern technology could help? So maybe you don’t have a studio carve your marble frieze-- maybe you have it cast out of resin composite instead. Maybe your tile floor is installed in sections instead of individually hand-laid. What matters is that it’s beautiful and durable.

I find it hard to believe that the effort spent on devising flamboyantly asymmetrical, totally unique and unprecedented Jello-shaped buildings couldn’t also be employed toward adapting modern construction techniques and materials to suit our perfectly sound pre-existing 6000-year-old tradition of well-established aesthetic principles.

I’m not sure about this. I don’t believe that the architects of yore had more freedom to offend than the modern crowd-- if anything, the reverse. When I walk into an opulent, painstakingly restored movie palace from the 1920s, for example, there’s no sense that the designer is trying to ‘challenge’ me or ‘disrupt my preconceptions of spatial harmony’ or whatever. They were working to create an harmonious and beautiful environment, trying to give their nickel-paying audiences a taste of elegance in their surroundings. Imagine anyone 80 years from now trying to raise funds to restore a modern suburban multiplex? Unlikely.

I suppose there are people out there who would be willing to express offense at elements of classically themed, balanced architecture. However, I suspect those people might be mostly other architects.

I started a post a while back to discuss this very same topic: Lets Talk Architecture .

No one hates 99.9% of buildings constructed between 1945-1995 more than me. Two other factors that I think contribute to the amount of execrable buildings built in the last 50+ years:

  1. The disposable nature of the society that we live in. Look at most of our cultural output, like music or movies. Collectively, we don’t value quality and tend to promote things that are flashy, shallow, and appeal to the lowest common denominator.

  2. Lowered expectations. Most of us are so used to crappy buildings; either the garbage inspired by the le Corbustier era of architects or the cheap, prefab buildings with exposed hvac and ceiling girders that passes for commercial architecture today.

As this is CS and not GQ, I know that I’ve heard or read that many of today’s buildings are designed to look great as you drive past them at 60 miles/hour from a distance, not as much when you’re walking slowly by up close at ground level.

I’m not sure, but I suspect part of that may well be functional rather than any desire or need for decorative construction: Arches hold up a lot better than many other forms. Especially when low-maintenance of load-bearing structures is an issue.

Frank Gehry is quite possibly the worst architect in living memory.

Sorry to continue the Gehry hijack, but I need to add:

I think the strongest aspect of Gehry’s work is the clear feeling of exuberance. It expresses that architecture is now liberated (by the computer) of traditional geometries. It’s essentially a celebration of our capability for describing and building complex surfaces.

I believe that’s why clients like MIT & Case Western have been attracted to him. He gives artistic expression to advanced math & science.

Also, to say his buildings are not useful (even in the narrowest sense of that word) is wrong. Disney Hall is an amazing place to see & hear a performance for example.

Also, it’s funny to cite FL Wright’s Guggenheim and then claim Wright wanted to complement his surroundings (!?!) Wright’s buildings (which I also love) are typically inward-focused because he had great contempt for cities & most other buildings.

Nonsense. Gehry himself, by his own admission, knows almost nothing about structural engineering and his so-called “designs” often require extensive development by structural engineers to make them in any way feasable to construct. And his “complex surfaces” result in complicated, maintenance-intensive buildings that frequently suffer from water collection and leakage, and are a royal pain in the ass from an HVAC or passive environment control point ov view. Gehry clearly regards his buildings as some kind of post-Modern, post-Industrial, deconstructionalist art exhibits and completely neglects the fact that people have to actually live and work in and around them. I’d be impressed if he would exhibit a design based on some kind off mathematical distribution, but his constructions are utterly random and acalculus. They’re also cheap-looking and, owing to his manifest disinterest in how the building is to endure weather, often rust-stained and watermarked.

Gehry knows as much about advanced math and sciences as I know about Japanese horticulture, and you don’t see me running around babbling on about having invented an entirely new and innovative way of cultivating bonsai trees.

The Guggenheim New York is an image of what buildings (what was then) the most progressive and metropolitan city in the world should (and were predicted to) look like. Frankly, nothing built in New York City fits in except for another glass-front skyscraper; it’s a city of abominable architectures, an icon for exactly the sort of thing the o.p. is criticising. Wright, and his followers and better imitators, elsewhere designed buildings that both stood out and yet fit into their surroundings. He also understood what makes a building successful from not just an artistic point of view (exuberance and all that) but also from a livability standpoint. Gehry “designs” buildings that mock their surroundings like a street corner psychotic, and then wear quickly into a blight on the scenery.

I can’t imagine anyone in fifty years looking at the Disney Center and saying, “That looks classic.” More likely they’ll say, “Can we tear down that rust-streaked trash heap and replace it with an inoffensive condo or something?”


But ‘working to create an harmonious and beautiful environment’ does offend people; the same people who say that they want to “* ‘challenge’ me or ‘disrupt my preconceptions of spatial harmony’ or whatever*”. So do bright colors and shiny metal rails and anything at all that stand out. Anything but brown, grey, and for the really daring black doesn’t seem to be allowed. Any image or carving, the same.

It’s not that they had more freedom. It’s that first, the common aesthetics of the past were generally superior, because it wasn’t poisoned with the attitude that if normal people think it looks pretty, it’s bad. Either unsophisticated or a tool of Western Imperialism. And second, they were trying for something besides not offending people. Anything that is actually interesting to look at will offend someone, after all.

I almost got whiplash nodding my head as I read the OP. It seemed that architects used to try to please the eye, now they try to please the client’s accountants.