Boston_City_Hall_-_Boston,_MA_-(cropped) copy

Is This Ugly or Heroic? An Eyesore or Gem? What Is ‘Ugly’?

Everyone knows ugly when they see it. But what we subjectively hate has taken on objective importance. Anger toward Modernist architecture has resulted in a lot of name-calling, both from traditionalists defining “modern” as “evil” and the architectural establishment decrying reactionary vilification. Some architects have responded by denying all style and trying to define beauty as the only criterion for aesthetic value.

But beauty is as vague a universality as any human judgment—and just as idiosyncratic. Jay Merrick wrote in The Independent: “If you want to make nine out of 10 architects squirm, ask them if they think about beauty when they’re designing.” Until the Industrial Revolution, aesthetics were largely decorative preferences with intellectual justification, based on the past as being the source of beauty. But an explosion of new materials, technologies, and ideologies eventually generated the “us” and “them” of today’s architecture—and thus new definitions of architectural ugly.

Ugly can be the social nausea of a Nazi masterpiece by Albert Speer, or the hideous environmental rampage of a McMansion, or just the unrelenting inhumanity of mid-20th century federal housing blocks. But the response of pure hate to any particular aesthetic is, now, often completely subjective, based on competing definitions of “architectural ugly.” 

The architect Lebbeus Woods, who died 12 years ago, clearly defined the rejection of the past as “ugly”: “Prettiness was conventional, easily acceptable, and, in a time of rapid change, an ethical crime against truth.” This “new” art was essentially, intentionally, ugly: “Their ugliness indicated a way forward eventually things we didn’t understand become familiar: yesterday’s ‘ugly’ becomes today’s ‘pretty.’”

What is ugly? From comes this etymological history: “First recorded in 1200–50; Middle English ugly, uglike, from Old Norse uggligr ‘fearful, dreadful,’ equivalent to ugg(r)” Is ugly just dreadful, the opposite to what Thomas Aquinas called beauty (“that which pleases when seen”)? If we’re viscerally disturbed by aesthetics embodied in something, is it ugly because it’s dreadful?

Just as “beauty” is not as simple as “pretty,” “ugly” has far more impact and meaning than “dreadful.” In an article for The Architectural Review, Stephen Bayley, author of the book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, notes, “The beautiful and the ugly are not opposites, but aspects of the same thing.” He goes on to note that the Eiffel Tower was deemed hideous before it was built.

Why did many Parisians think the Eiffel Tower was ugly? The tower used unprecedented technology to create unprecedented architecture. There was no sentimentality of historic reference. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution made the traditions of exterior decoration a choice, not a necessity. Until those new realities of technological invention, decorative skin was applied to the traditions of structure used for thousands of years. Until the Industrial Revolution caused an explosion in building technology, using concrete, steel, glass, membrane roofs, and electricity, the structures of buildings were cloaked in history.

The birth of concrete, the mono-material of the 20th century, was unprecedented, and rather than cast traditional beams and lintels, architects ran with its plasticity to create an aesthetic that was proudly anti-beauty: Brutalism. Is Brutalism ugly? A recent survey determined that the “ugliest” buildings in America are topped by three Brutalist efforts: The J. Edgar Hoover Building and the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C., and Boston City Hall. 

But love Modernism or loathe it, technologies are used to make our lives easier, more exciting, healthier, and, I think, more beautiful. “Parametics” might be a $7 word for computer facilitation of form and space, but digital design and construction implementation create unlimited innovations—for pretty or ugly realities.

In his book Ugliness and Judgement, Timothy Hyde writes, “Aesthetic arguments about ugliness have often served to tie architectural thinking to other kinds of debates and questions in parallel spheres of social and cultural production—things like science, law, professionalism. … Debates about ugliness are very easily legible as debates about politics.”

Ugly was redefined in the 20th century, when the aesthetic gates were flung open, and a new ugly was suddenly present, an alternative universe of perception now defining two aesthetic attitudes like matter and antimatter. “Ugliness is an undertheorized dimension of architecture, given how common that critique is,” writes Hyde. “People always think buildings are ugly. Particularly as a historian of modern architecture, I encounter any number of people who say, ‘Oh, you’re a modern architectural historian, can you explain, why would an architect ever think to do a building like that?’”

Have we come to equate sentimentality to illegitimacy? Is the new ugly equated to intellectual innovation? For some, words like “beauty” and “ugliness” are not used to describe a certainty or fact but rather a changeable preference. As the late critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote: “Sometimes the object of beauty is not just unexpected, but bizarre, with an aspect I initially consider odd or even ugly. Such experiences are revolutions of taste, insights into new or alien aesthetic categories. When I first ‘got’ an Indian temple sculpture, it was as if my molecules were violently rearranged. Something similar happened when I first ‘got’ a painting by Jackson Pollock, say, or Andy Warhol—any strongly innovative artist. As a rule, what had seemed most odd or ugly became the exact trigger of my exaltation.”

If there’s just a multiverse of beauty, does ugly end in relativism, along with the end of the architectural canon?

The digital revolution has completely altered the profession. The institutions that once filtered recognition are fading. The editors that anointed and rejected are losing power. Our politics, music, work are now atomizing into unprecedented digital forms of human agency. What was once defined for us—political parties, educational opportunities, where we had to work—is now defined by those who participate in them, under the hidden imposition of algorithms. 

Any designer—indeed, anyone at all, thanks to AI—can participate in architecture and project in 2D who they are everywhere, thanks to the ubiquity of social media. The cultural volume is becoming overwhelming, and the volume control once exercised by the gatekeepers of editorial and institutional sanctions may be silently directed by the imposed algorithms, but we can act rather than simply watch. 

We’re approaching an aesthetic multiverse. “Ugly” and “beauty” are what they always have been: infinitely subjective and universally idiosyncratic. Humanity has always been this multiverse. Since architecture is human, nothing more and nothing less, what we think is innovation in architectural aesthetics might just be all of us now being able to see what has always been there: the exquisite diversity in our universality.

This topic will be the first subject of a new podcast, Our Buildings, Our Selves: Humanity in Architecture, produced in partnership with Connecticut AIA, WPKN Radio in Bridgeport, and Common Edge. Featured image: Boston City Hall (designed by Kallman McKinnell & Wood), via Wikimedia. 


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