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Ugly Buildings Are Not Simply a Matter of Aesthetics

Building booms are a bit like pandemics: they begin slowly; variants cause mass infection, a scrambling response, and then, ultimately, exhaustion. As interest rates spike and the most recent boom ends, we should pause to diagnose architecture’s diseased state, beyond simply cringing at the ugly buildings.

But what is “ugly”? It is settled architecture law that Postmodernism was ugly. Why? We now recoil upon seeing the collisions of cliches, Palladian windows, ogee trim shapes, and contrasting colors, but the architecture came from somewhere. There was no style book. Knowing where architecture comes from connects what we see to why it exists. In the heyday of PoMo, many voices in the academy connected it to the Ronald Reagan presidency. “Postmodern architecture is the architecture of Reaganism,” historian Mary McLeod wrote in 1989. “The pseudo historical nostalgia, the fabricated traditions, the pandering to a nouveau-riche clientele, the populist rhetoric that often sounds more paternalistic than democratic, the abandonment of any social vision, all seem related in some way to the conservative turn in American politics.”

Buildings cost money. When PoMo exploded, Baby Boomers were in their phase of peak earning, entitlement, and empowerment. That hubris elected Reagan twice. In reaction to the choking orthodoxy of mid–20th century modernism, architects used the aesthetic triggers of history, precedent, and “style”—and gave PoMo a natural birth in the boom. And it’s now seen as ugly.

Why is so much of today’s architecture so ugly to so many? It’s easy to say that “no one” appears to have designed many of these buildings, but virtually all nonresidential construction is designed by someone. Today’s boom seems to revel in brazen banality with the same frenetic self-justification that the Reagan boom had on PoMo architecture. Architects try hard to project “leadership” andinnovation,” when in truth architecture follows the defining realities of our culture.

Forty years ago, the Reagan Revolution defined American culture. Today, the computer revolution defines world culture. In 1989, editors, professors, and institutions were the gatekeepers of architectural exposure, choosing what we see. Now we all see everything. The unrelenting noise of internet architecture depresses me. But aesthetic reality is hard to see during a building boom’s fever. All pandemics in early bloom have randomly observed, even anecdotal realities, and this building boom plague is no different.

During booms, the world explodes with new manifestations of architectural hubris, but I think the overwhelming scale and scope of today’s contagion is due in large part to the computer-generated culture that so easily replicates stock elements and solutions. This arbitrary synthesis of set pieces is now a cut-and-paste exercise, creating a tacked-together aesthetic seen in a growing number of built distortions: 

 

The benefits of solar panels generate their own aesthetic. Beyond orientation, the explosion of PVs is based on a “more is better” aesthetic. As a result, the insertion of black rashes on rooftops often has zero visual consideration. A new anti-aesthetic aesthetic has aesthetic outcomes, unique to this era.

 

The isolated building may look lovely, but black trim has become the Goth mascara of homes, as shallow as any fashion statement, as pervasive as any fad, and as instant and viral as any internet trend.

 

Stick-frame-over-podium buildings have continued to metastasize, wedging themselves into neighborhoods that once had variety. When the value of saleable square-footage is fully realized in these boxes, it’s scarcely different from the value of the electricity when PVs are maxed out. But a stick-frame-over-podium values more than aesthetics—and it shows.

 

Exteriors that were once rational manipulations of a building’s shape have gone from simple skins to inflamed and raging fashion failures of four, five, six, seven materials, colors, and patterns. The huge garages, colliding forms, and tortured roof lines are all in service of marketing a huge floor plan.

 

When you read the descriptions that architects append to the images they promote on social media, I can’t help but smell the stink of Real Estate Hype. Try it yourself: go to your favorite social media platform and scroll through the results to the key word search of “architecture.” Insanely thoughtless buildings are “classic,” “elegant,” even “beautiful.”

Beyond bitching about the ugliness of the era, it might be good to try to understand why the noise is deafening our sensibilities. In the cultural hangover after the Reagan Revolution, it was easy to throw the PoMo baby out with the wastewater of our previous excesses. If we ignore the reasons why the overwhelming “correctness” of Modernism made the humor and popular culture of PoMo valuable, we lose the humanity that creates our buildings.

We need to see beyond this boom’s flood of bland buildings and look for underlying causes: Has the impact of digital technology turned the ideas of designers into tropes to be cut-and-pasted onto buildings, just like PoMo? Like ChatGPT essays that mechanically sew together prefabricated thoughts, the instant universality of architectural details being available via the internet threatens to turn buildings into quilts of cliches. 

Our culture is simultaneously terrified and turned on by AI, the latest manifestation of digital culture. Just as this last boom’s explosion of banality was the byproduct of our cut-and-paste world, the inevitable ascendance of AI portends more aesthetic mediocrity and less human involvement in our buildings. Unfortunately, it’s we humans who actually use the architecture we create.

All photos via the author.

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