The British author Douglas Adams had this to say about airports: “Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of special effort.” Sadly, this truth is not applicable merely to airports: it can also be said of most contemporary architecture.
Take the Tour Montparnasse, a black, slickly glass-panelled skyscraper, looming over the beautiful Paris cityscape like a giant domino waiting to fall. Parisians hated it so much that the city was subsequently forced to enact an ordinance forbidding any further skyscrapers higher than 36 meters.
Or take Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Downtown Boston is generally an attractive place, with old buildings and a waterfront and a beautiful public garden. But Boston’s City Hall is a hideous concrete edifice of mind-bogglingly inscrutable shape, like an ominous component found left over after you’ve painstakingly assembled a complicated household appliance. In the 1960s, before the first batch of concrete had even dried in the mold, people were already begging preemptively for the damn thing to be torn down. There’s a whole additional complex of equally unpleasant federal buildings attached to the same plaza, designed by Walter Gropius, an architect whose chuckle-inducing surname belies the utter cheerlessness of his designs. The John F. Kennedy Building, for example—featurelessly grim on the outside, infuriatingly unnavigable on the inside—is where, among other things, terrified immigrants attend their deportation hearings, and where traumatized veterans come to apply for benefits. Such an inhospitable building sends a very clear message, which is: the government wants its lowly supplicants to feel confused, alienated, and afraid.
The Tour Montparnasse. Who can possibly defend this? And if there’s something clearly wrong with it, which there is, what is it and why don’t we talk about it more in other cases?
The fact is, contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies. Try telling that to architects and their acolytes, though, and you’ll get an earful about why your feeling is misguided, the product of some embarrassing misconception about architectural principles. One defense, typically, is that these eyesores are, in reality, incredible feats of engineering. After all, “blobitecture”—which, we regret to say, is a real school of contemporary architecture—is created using complicated computer-driven algorithms! You may think the ensuing blob-structure looks like a tentacled turd, or a crumpled kleenex, but that’s because you don’t have an architect’s trained eye.
Another thing you will often hear from design-school types is that contemporary architecture is honest. It doesn’t rely on the forms and usages of the past, and it is not interested in coddling you and your dumb feelings. Wake up, sheeple! Your boss hates you, and your bloodsucking landlord too, and your government fully intends to grind you between its gears. That’s the world we live in! Get used to it! Fans of Brutalism—the blocky-industrial-concrete school of architecture—are quick to emphasize that these buildings tell it like it is, as if this somehow excused the fact that they look, at best, dreary, and, at worst, like the headquarters of some kind of post-apocalyptic totalitarian dictatorship.
Let’s be really honest with ourselves: a brief glance at any structure designed in the last 50 years should be enough to persuade anyone that something has gone deeply, terribly wrong with us. Some unseen person or force seems committed to replacing literally every attractive and appealing thing with an ugly and unpleasant thing. The architecture produced by contemporary global capitalism is possibly the most obvious visible evidence that it has some kind of perverse effect on the human soul. Of course, there is no accounting for taste, and there may be some among us who are naturally are deeply disposed to appreciate blobs and blocks. But polling suggests that devotees of contemporary architecture are overwhelmingly in the minority: aside from monuments, few of the public’s favorite structures are from the postwar period. (When the results of the poll were released, architects harrumphed that it didn’t “reflect expert judgment” but merely people’s “emotions,” a distinction that rather proves the entire point.) And when it comes to architecture, as distinct from most other forms of art, it isn’t enough to simply shrug and say that personal preferences differ: where public buildings are concerned, or public spaces which have an existing character and historic resonances for the people who live there, to impose an architect’s eccentric will on the masses, and force them to spend their days in spaces they find ugly and unsettling, is actually oppressive and cruel.
The politics of this issue, moreover, are all upside-down. For example, how do we explain why, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, more conservative commentators were calling for more comfortable and home-like public housing, while left-wing writers staunchly defended the populist spirit of the high-rise apartment building, despite ample evidence that the majority of people would prefer not to be forced to live in or among such places? Conservatives who critique public housing may have easily-proven ulterior motives, but why so many on the left are wedded to defending unpopular schools of architectural and urban design is less immediately obvious.
There have, after all, been moments in the history of socialism—like the Arts & Crafts movement in late 19th-century England—where the creation of beautiful things was seen as part and parcel of building a fairer, kinder world. A shared egalitarian social undertaking, ideally, ought to be one of joy as well as struggle: in these desperate times, there are certainly more overwhelming imperatives than making the world beautiful to look at, but to decline to make the world more beautiful when it’s in your power to so, or to destroy some beautiful thing without need, is a grotesque perversion of the cooperative ideal. This is especially true when it comes to architecture. The environments we surround ourselves with have the power to shape our thoughts and emotions. People trammeled in on all sides by ugliness are often unhappy without even knowing why. If you live in a place where you are cut off from light, and nature, and color, and regular communion with other humans, it is easy to become desperate, lonely, and depressed. The question is: how did contemporary architecture wind up like this? And how can it be fixed?
For about 2,000 years, everything human beings built was beautiful, or at least unobjectionable. The 20th century put a stop to this, evidenced by the fact that people often go out of their way to vacation in “historic” (read: beautiful) towns that contain as little postwar architecture as possible. But why? What actually changed? Why does there seem to be such an obvious break between the thousands of years before World War II and the postwar period? And why does this seem to hold true everywhere?
Caltrans District 7 Headquarters. Photo credit: Morphosis Architects. Oh my fucking god, just look at it. Look at it! Does this make you happy? Does it nourish your spirit? What’s with all the little random protrusions? Aaaaagghh.
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.”
A contempt for ornament imbued the imagination of those architects who saw themselves as dedicated to social engineering rather than the mere creation of beautiful trifles. This mindset is best exemplified by the French architect Le Corbusier, who famously characterized the house as a “machine for living.” Corbusier’s ideas about planning and design were still taken seriously even when he proposed his “Plan Voisin” for Paris, which would have involved demolishing half of the city north of the Seine and replacing it with about a dozen enormous uniform skyscrapers. (Thankfully, nobody took him quite seriously enough to let him do it.) Corbusier may have done more than anyone to convince architects that they were no longer allowed to decorate their creations, issuing unquestionable pronouncements, like “the desire to decorate everything about one is a false spirit and an abominable small perversion” and “the more a people are cultivated, the more decor disappears.” He condemned “precious and useless objects that accumulated on the shelves,” and decried the “rustling silks, the marbles which twist and turn, the vermilion whiplashes, the silver blades of Byzantium and the Orient… Let’s be done with it!”
This paranoid revulsion against classical aesthetics was not so much a school of thought as a command: from now on, the architect had to be concerned solely with the large-scale form of the structure, not with silly trivialities such as gargoyles and grillwork, no matter how much pleasure such things may have given viewers. It’s somewhat stunning just how uniform the rejection of “ornament” became. Since the eclipse of Art Deco at the end of the 1930s, the intricate designs that characterized centuries of building, across civilizations, from India to Persia to the Mayans, have vanished from architecture. With only a few exceptions, such as New Classical architecture’s mixed successes in reviving Greco-Roman forms, and Postmodern architecture’s irritating attempts to parody them, no modern buildings include the kind of highly complex painting, woodwork, ironwork, and sculpture that characterized the most strikingly beautiful structures of prior eras.
The anti-decorative consensus also accorded with the artistic consensus about what kind of “spirit” 20th century architecture ought to express. The idea of transcendently “beautiful” architecture began to seem faintly ludicrous in a postwar world of chaos, conflict, and alienation. Life was violent, discordant, and uninterpretable. Art should not aspire to futile goals like transcendence, but should try to express the often ugly, brutal, and difficult facts of human beings’ material existence. To call a building “ugly” was therefore no longer an insult: for one thing, the concept of ugliness had no meaning. But to the extent that it did, art could and should be ugly, because life is ugly, and the highest duty of art is to be honest about who we are rather than deluding us with comforting fables.
This idea, that architecture should try to be “honest” rather than “beautiful,” is well expressed in an infamously heated 1982 debate at the Harvard School of Design between two architects, Peter Eisenman and Christopher Alexander. Eisenman is a well-known “starchitect” whose projects are inspired by the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida, and whose forms are intentionally chaotic and grating. Eisenman took his duty to create “disharmony” seriously: one Eisenman-designed house so departed from the normal concept of a house that its owners actually wrote an entire book about the difficulties they experienced trying to live in it. For example, Eisenman split the master bedroom in two so the couple could not sleep together, installed a precarious staircase without a handrail, and initially refused to include bathrooms. In his violent opposition to the very idea that a real human being might actually attempt to live (and crap, and have sex) in one of his houses, Eisenman recalls the self-important German architect from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, who becomes exasperated the need to include a staircase between floors: “Why can’t the creatures stay in one place? The problem of architecture is the problem of all art: the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.”
A Peter Eisenman building. Note the total lack of plant life. Plant life might accidentally make you feel happy and comfortable, and happiness is a bourgeois illusion. The tiny figures on the left seem to be attempting a picnic on the curve. They are probably cold and windswept—as they should be.
Alexander, by contrast, is one of the few major figures in architecture who believes that an objective standard of beauty is an important value for the profession; his buildings, which are often small-scale projects like gardens or schoolyards or homes, attempt to be warm and comfortable, and often employ traditional—what he calls “timeless”—design practices. In the debate, Alexander lambasted Eisenman for wanting buildings that are “prickly and strange,” and defended a conception of architecture that prioritizes human feeling and emotion. Eisenman, evidently trying his damnedest to behave like a cartoon parody of a pretentious artist, declared that he found the Chartres cathedral too boring to visit even once: “in fact,” he stated, “I have gone to Chartres a number of times to eat in the restaurant across the street — had a 1934 red Mersault wine, which was exquisite — I never went into the cathedral. The cathedral was done en passant. Once you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you have seen them all.” Alexander replied: “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.”
The 1982 debate is perhaps one of the most aggressive public exchanges in the history of design. It is also illuminating, both because of Eisenman’s honesty in defending buildings that make people unhappy and uncomfortable—“If we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures,” he declared, “we might lull them into thinking that everything’s all right, Jack, which it isn’t”—and because of Alexander’s wildly inaccurate prophecy that architects and the public would soon see through Eisenman’s deconstructionist mumbo-jumbo and return to a love of traditional forms and values. In fact, the opposite happened: Alexander sunk into relative obscurity, and Eisenman became yet more famous, winning the National Design Award and garnering prestigious commissions across the world.
But can these two schools of design, the comfortable and the unsettling, peacefully co-exist? After all, Eisenman insisted that the world had room for both his brand of monumental, discordant poststructuralist architecture and Alexander’s small-scale, hand-made traditional architecture. The extraordinary fact about architecture over the last century, however, is just how dominant certain tendencies have been. Aesthetic uniformity among architects is remarkably rigid. Contemporary architecture shuns the classical use of multiple symmetries, intentionally refusing to align windows or other design elements, and preferring unusual geometric forms to satisfying and orderly ones. It follows a number of strict taboos: classical domes and arches are forbidden. A column must never be fluted, symmetrical pitched roofs are an impossibility. Forget about cupolas, spires, cornices, arcades, or anything else that recalls pre-modern civilization. Nothing built today must be mistakable for anything built 100 or more years ago. The rupture between our era and those of the past is absolute, and this unbridgeable gap must be made visible and manifest through the things we build. And since things were lovely in the past, they must, of necessity, be ugly now.
For many socialists in the 20th century, the abdication of decorative elements and traditional forms seemed to be a natural outgrowth of a revolutionary spirit of simplicity, solidarity, and sacrifice. But the joke was on the socialists, really, because as it turned out, this obsession with minimalism was also uniquely compatible with capitalism’s miserable cult of efficiency. After all, every dollar expended on fanciful balusters or stained glass rose windows needed to produce some sort of return on investment. And since such things can be guaranteed to produce almost no return on investment, they had to go. There was a good reason why, historically, religious architecture has been the most concerned with beauty for beauty’s sake; the more time is spent elegantly decorating a cathedral, the more it serves its intended function of celebrating God’s glory, whereas the more time is spent decorating an office building, the less money will be left over for the developer.
But let’s leave aside God’s glory—what about ordinary human happiness? One of the most infuriating aspects of contemporary architecture is its willful disdain for democracy. When people are polled, they tend to prefer older buildings to postwar buildings; very few postwar buildings make it onto lists of most treasured places. Yet architects are reluctant to build in the styles that people find more beautiful. Why? Well, Peter Eisenman has spoken for a lot of architects in being generally dismissive of democracy, saying that the role of the architect is not to give people what they want, but what they should want if they were intelligent enough to have good taste. Eisenman says he prefers to work for right-wing clients, because “liberal views have never built anything of value,” due to their incessant concern with public process and public needs. (On a side note, it’s no accident that Howard Roark, protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and the arch-hero of the American conservative literary canon, is an architect who intentionally dynamites a public housing project because somebody had the gall to add balconies to his original design without his consent.) Eisenman suggests that if we deferred to public taste in music, we would all be listening to Mantovani rather than Beethoven, and uses this as evidence that architects should impose taste from above rather than deferring to democratic desires. Indeed, there is always a “Thomas Kinkade” problem in believing that art should be “democratic.” If you deferred to public taste as judged by sales volume, Kinkade would be the greatest artist in the world. Taylor Swift would be the best musician, and the Transformers series would be the best cinema. Of course, we don’t trust democratic judgment in matters of taste, because people often like things that are garbage.
But architecture is very different from other forms of art: people who hate Beethoven aren’t obligated to listen to it from 9-5 every weekday, and people who hate the Transformers series aren’t obligated to watch it every night before bed. The physical environment in which we live and work, however, is ubiquitous and inescapable; when it comes to architecture, it is nigh-impossible for people to simply avoid the things they hate and seek out the things they like. It’s also true that intellectuals are too quick to write off the public as stupid and unable to decide things for themselves. There are plenty of instances where, when something truly great comes along, the public is perfectly capable of recognizing it. Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, have consistently been incredibly popular, despite being complex and intellectual pieces of literature, because they work on multiple levels. They are accessible enough to be loved and appreciated widely, but deep enough to offer fodder for centuries of reflection and analysis. Likewise, the masses tend to like, for example, Gothic cathedrals and Persian mosques, which are breathtakingly intricate and complex works of art.
The left, in particular, should eagerly embrace a conception of architecture that is both democratic and sophisticated. Many of the worst parts of contemporary architecture have echoes of the “bad” parts of leftism: the dreariness of the Soviet Union, the dehumanizing tendency to try to impose from above a grand conception of a new social order. They exemplify what James Scott calls “high modernism,” the twisted effort to “rationalize” human beings rather than accept them as they are and build places that suit them and that they like. The good kind of leftism, on the other hand, operates from the bottom up rather than the top down. It helps people create their own places, rather than creating monolithic structures into which they are placed for their own good. It looks far more like a village than a tower block, decentralized and with a strong connection between the makers of a place and the inhabitants of a place.
At the moment, the needs or wishes of the people who actually have to use buildings are rarely considered at all. Architecture schools do not actually teach students anything about craft or about emotion; most of the courses are highly mathematical, dedicated to engineering and theories of form rather than to understanding traditional modes of building or understanding what people want out of their buildings. Unless they are an uber-wealthy client, users of buildings rarely have much input into the design process. Students do not get to say what kind of school they would like, office workers do not get to say whether they would prefer to work in a glass tower or in a leafy complex of wifi-enabled wooden pagodas. Some of this may come from the design process itself. Unlike in the age of artisanship, there is today a strong separation between the process of designing and the process of making. Frank Gehry designs his work using CAD software, then someone else has to go out and actually build it. But that rupture means that architecture becomes something imposed upon people. It isn’t participatory, and it doesn’t adapt in response to their needs. It’s prefabricated, assembled beforehand off-site and then dumped on the unwitting populace. We are not meant to live in modern buildings; they are made for people who do not poop. Good architecture is made better by the life that people bring to it, but one gets the sense in a contemporary structure that one is befouling the place with one’s odors and filth.
In fact, everyday good architecture should not even be about the building, it should be about the people. If the building isn’t intended as some kind of public monument or centerpiece, it shouldn’t draw much attention to itself. Frank Gehry is a wanton violator of this rule: when he decided to design homes for the Lower Ninth Ward in post-Katrina New Orleans, he created a discordant batch of hyper-contemporary houses that “riffed” on the region’s traditional vernacular architecture. Rather than being concerned to give people comfortable houses that fit in with their surroundings and suited the preferences of the residents, Gehry designed houses that screamed for attention and were fundamentally about themselves rather than about the people of the city he ostensibly cared about. Good buildings recede seamlessly into their surroundings; Gehry’s blare like an industrial klaxon. Similarly, when a building like Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s Kunsthaus in Austria (the building at the top of this article) is placed in the middle of an old village, the entire fabric of the village is disrupted. The Kunsthaus (a representative example of “blobitecture”) cannot coexist peacefully with the things surrounding it, because it’s impossible to stop looking at it. Like the streaker at the football game, the building parades in front of us with such vulgar shamelessness that no amount of willpower can peel our eyes away.
Architecture’s abandonment of the principle of “aesthetic coherence” is creating serious damage to ancient cityscapes. The belief that “buildings should look like their times” rather than “buildings should look like the buildings in the place where they are being built” leads toward a hodge-podge, with all the benefits that come from a distinct and orderly local style being destroyed by a few buildings that undermine the coherence of the whole. This is partly a function of the free market approach to design and development, which sacrifices the possibility of ever again producing a place on the village or city level that has an impressive stylistic coherence. A revulsion (from both progressives and capitalist individualists alike) at the idea of “forced uniformity” leads to an abandonment of any community aesthetic traditions, with every building fitting equally well in Panama City, Dubai, New York City, or Shanghai. Because decisions over what to build are left to the individual property owner, and rich people often have horrible taste and simply prefer things that are huge and imposing, all possibilities for creating another city with the distinctiveness of a Venice or Bruges are erased forever.
Once upon a time, socialists liked to make beautiful things; the works of William Morris, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde are filled with both celebrations of classical aesthetics and pleas to liberate human beings from the miseries of economic deprivation. The core idea of leftism is that people should be free to flourish, in both body and mind, and they should thus be able to do so materially, spiritually, intellectually, and artistically. Handcrafts and ornament are not bourgeois, they are democratic, in that a society of artisans is a society of people who are getting to maximize their creative capabilities, whereas a society of people in clean-swept Corbusier-style skyscrapers have been reduced to specks, robbed of their individuality, stripped of their ability to make the world their own.
How, then, do we fix architecture? What makes for a better-looking world? If everything is ugly, how do we fix it? Cutting through all of the colossally mistaken theoretical justifications for contemporary design is a major project. But a few principles may prove helpful.
Postwar architecture has been characterized by fear and taboo. Architects are terrified of producing so much as a fluted column, because they believe their peers will think they are stupid, nostalgic, and unsophisticated. As a result, they produce structures that are as inscrutable and irrational as possible, so that people will think they are clever. But they need not be afraid! Their architect friends might think they are stupid if they put in a decorative archway. But we won’t.
1. THE FEAR OF BEAUTY — There is a misconception that if beauty is “subjective,” it therefore doesn’t exist or can’t be discussed. This is wrong; the fact that people disagree on something doesn’t mean it can’t be discussed, just as the fact that there is no “objectively best film” doesn’t prevent us from having discussions about which films are the best. Even if beauty is subjective, we can still have discussions about it, just as we can still debate morality even though people’s values differ.
There is a widespread conception, reinforced by conservative classicists, that “beauty” is just a euphemism for European imperialist art. [Now-disgraced] leftist writer Sam Kriss, who has ludicrously and incorrectly argued that London’s Brutalist Alexandra Road is more beautiful than St. Paul’s Cathedral, writes that “sentimental traditionalists talk a lot about beauty, but if beauty means proportion, regularity and harmony then modernism does it very well. But, of course, that’s not what they mean by beauty; they mean some ineffable organic connection to the life and striving of the nation.” But beauty doesn’t need to just mean “proportion” and it doesn’t mean “the life and striving of the nation.” It can’t simply mean simplicity and proportion, for many things are simple and proportionate that are not beautiful. And it can’t be nationalistic, because ancient mosques and temples are among the most beautiful of structures. When we talk about architectural beauty, we’re talking about a quality held in common across civilizations, one that unifies Indians and Mayans and Spaniards.
People are actually uncomfortable with the idea of beauty because they think it’s subjective. But we can’t actually rid ourselves of it; there are places we find beautiful, and places we don’t, and it’s important to have the conversation if we are to keep ourselves from continuing to make places that we don’t find beautiful. Without developing a language to talk about beauty, we will end up confusing the impressive with the attractive and creating spaces that are extraordinary from an engineering perspective and yet dead and discomforting.
2. THE FEAR OF ORNAMENT — Ornament is not an indulgence; it’s an essential part of the practice of building. In fact, “ornament” really just means attention to the micro-level aesthetic experience. It’s the small things, and small things matter. The idea of decoration as decadent is particularly ludicrous in the age of monumental design projects. How many more resources are wasted trying to make Frank Gehry’s latest pretzel stay standing up than it would take to install some attractive stonework on a far simpler structure? When we sacrifice the possibility of decoration we forfeit a slew of extraordinary aesthetic tools and forgo the possibility of incredible visual experiences. An allergy to ornament sentences humanity to eternal tedium, with nothing interesting to look at, nothing that we will notice on a building the second time that we did not see the first time.
3. THE FEAR OF TRADITION — It was astonishingly hubristic and careless for architects to craft a theory that forbid the possibility of ever again using traditional styles. Tradition is important, and severing one’s self from it is pointless and suicidal. We have inherited a palette of possibilities from the architectural practice of all prior cultures, and to squander it is both ungrateful and needless. Memory and continuity are not mere nostalgia. Of course, tradition has gotten a bad reputation, simply because most “neo-traditional” architecture is so bad and Disneylike. Recreations and pastiches are not the solution, and the mindless conservative love for everything Greek, Roman, and Victorian is a mistake. The point is not to just mindlessly love old things; that gets you McMansions. Rather, instead of recreating the exact look of traditional architecture, one should be trying to recreate the feeling that these old buildings give their viewers. Don’t build a plastic version of Venice. Build a city with canals and footbridges and ornate pastel houses dangling above the water, and give that city its own special identity. McMansions are an attempt to superficially remind people of beautiful things rather than doing the real work it takes to make something beautiful. But tradition is crucial, old things were generally better things, and if we abandon them we doom ourselves to creating mindless new shape after mindless new shape.
4. THE FEAR OF SYMMETRY — The tendency toward discord has to end. Symmetry is nice. Multiple overlapping symmetries can be dazzling. A building doesn’t need to be lopsided. You can line the windows up. It’s okay. It will look better. Don’t worry. We won’t tell your professor.
5. THE FEAR OF LOOKING FOOLISH — The people who most loudly disdain traditional architecture are those most concerned to convince others of their own intellectual seriousness. Designing a comforting, pleasing, and, yes, nostalgic space is simply not smart enough. People are afraid to say that they don’t “get” a building or find it ugly. It sounds childlike to say you wish it was a pastel color or you wish the two sides matched or you wish it didn’t look like it hated you. But it should be okay to say those things. Buildings shouldn’t hate you. They probably shouldn’t be weird-looking and they shouldn’t grate on the eyeballs. They should be comforting and attractive, because we have to live in them.
BOTH COMPLEXITY AND SIMPLICITY
One of the elements that makes a place truly beautiful is a careful balance of complexity and simplicity. Contemporary architecture frequently just goes for the simplicity and forgets the complexity, or it makes up for the simplicity of its appearance with complexity in the technical processes necessary to build it. But the old buildings that please us most are frequently simple at the larger level and complex at the micro-level. For example: the buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter are not actually elaborate. Most of them are simple, rectangular structures in a straight line along the street. But they are given pleasant colors, and adorned with colorful shutters and intricate iron galleries, and decorated with flowers and tropical plants. And it’s those complex elements that give the place life. The harmonious balance of simplicity and complexity, the complexity of a floral arrangement combined with the simplicity of a plain building painted well, make a place a delight to stroll through.
Plant life is actually one of the most important elements of architecture. One of the most serious problems with postwar architecture is that so much of its entirely devoid of nature. It presents us with blank walls and wide-open spaces with nary a tree or shrub to be seen. Generally speaking, the more plant life is in a place, the more attractive it is, and the less nature there is, the uglier it is. This is because nature is much better at designing things than we are. In fact, even Brutalist structures almost look livable if you let plants grow all over them; they might even be downright attractive if you let the plants cover every last square inch of concrete. Every building should look like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. We need plants and water to be happy. One of the reasons tower blocks are so insidious is that they deprive people of access to gardens. Gardens should be integrated seamlessly into everything; there is a reason being banished from a garden was the most terrible fate God could think to inflict on humankind.
FEELINGS OVER FORMS
There is, generally speaking, too great of a desire for architecture to convey ideas. Architects obsess over the ideas that they are embodying in their buildings. But most people who use a building don’t understand whatever abstract theoretical notion the architect was trying to convey. Far more important than “ideas” are the feelings that a building generates, the experiences people will have in it, and these should be given priority.
Likewise, “form” is dwelled on excessively; architects care far more about the shape of the building than whether its inhabitants are comfortable. Hence “blobitecture”: the architect precisely designs the exact perfect kind of blob, using elaborate digital design and engineering tools, without stopping to wonder whether people actually like blobs. The website of Zaha Hadid Architects brags that the buildings for a new project are “iconic in both their scale and ambition… creating a unique twisted, intertwined silhouette that punctures the skyline.” But architects should not want to create things that are “iconic in scale” or to “puncture the skyline.” This is precisely the wrong thing to care about; it suggests the architect simply craves attention rather than the creation of perfect beauty and comfort. You’re not supposed to be puncturing! You’re supposed to be adding another delicate and perfect note to the skyline’s gorgeous symphony.
Most of the theoretical justifications for these forms are transparent nonsense. Witness Frank Gehry explaining how he didn’t want to “do” decorations or “historical stuff” and decided instead to be inspired by the shapes of fish:
“I was looking for a way to deal with the humanizing qualities of decoration without doing it. I got angry with it—all the historical stuff, the pastiche. I said to myself, If you have to go backward, why not go back 300 million years before man, to fish? And that’s when I started with this fish shtick, as I think of it, and started drawing the damn things, and I realized that they were architectural, conveying motion even when they were not moving. I don’t like to portray it to other people as a complicated intellectual endeavor. Most architects avoid double curves, as I did, because we didn’t have a language for translation into a building that was viable and economical. I think the study of fish allowed me to create a kind of personal language.”
If this came from an ordinary person, we’d dismiss it as a madman’s ravings. But Gehry is the architects’ favorite architect, so he can get away with admitting that he’s just doodling fish, and people will think he’s very profound.
THE NEED FOR COHERENCE
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is an impressive building. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear any actually relationship to its surroundings; it could have been placed anywhere. Wright’s Fallingwater house, on the other hand, was designed to cohere with its location. Aesthetic coherence is very important; a sense of place depends on every element in that place working together. The streets of the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston are beautiful because there are many different elements, but they are all aesthetically unified. The Tour Montparnasse in Paris is horrifying, because it doesn’t flow with the surrounding buildings and draws attention to itself. Capitalism eats culture, and it makes ugly places. Money has no taste.
We can see the fruits of Peter Eisenman’s anti-democratic philosophy in the places he builds. A former student at the Cooper Union recalls seeing an Eisenman design for a dormitory and thinking “I wouldn’t want to live there,” because Eisenman had used oddly-angled walls, making placing furniture well impossible, and putting the windows at floor level, so one would have to get on one’s knees to see outside. The person who assumes they know what people ought to want generally doesn’t actually know very much at all. Places should be liked, they should make people comfortable. Architects should find out which buildings people like best (hint: it’s generally the older ones) and should try to make new buildings that give people those same feelings of pleasure. Brutalism is the opposite of democracy: it means imposing on people something they hate, all for the sake some narrow and arbitrary formalistic conceptual scheme. Deferring to popular taste doesn’t have to mean Las Vegas; it can mean elaborate cathedrals and gardens with fountains.
THE ABOLITION OF THE SKYSCRAPER
It should be obvious to anyone that skyscrapers should be abolished. After all, they embody nearly every bad tendency in contemporary architecture: they are not part of nature, they are monolithic, they are boring, they have no intricacy, and they have no democracy. Besides, there is plenty of space left on earth to spread out horizontally; the only reasons to spread vertically are phallic and Freudian. Architect Leon Krier has suggested that while there should be no height limit on buildings, no building should ever be more than four stories (so, spires as tall as you like, and belfries). This seems a completely sensible idea.
But more than just abolishing skyscrapers, we must create a world of everyday wonder, a world in which every last thing is a beautiful thing. If this sounds impossible, it isn’t; for thousands of years, nearly every buildings humans made was beautiful. It is simply a matter of recovering old habits. We should ask ourselves: why is it that we can’t build another Prague or Florence? Why can’t we build like the ancient mosques in Persia or the temples in India? Well, there’s no reason why we can’t. There’s nothing stopping us except the prison of our ideas and our horrible economic system. We must break out of the prison and destroy the economic system.
There’s an easy test for whether a building is beautiful or not. Ask yourself: if this building could speak, would it sound like the Rubaiyat or the works of Shakespeare, or would it make a noise like “Blorp”? For nearly 100 years, we have been stuck in the Age of Blorp. It is time to learn to speak again.
Correction: The print version of this article indicated that Peter Eisenman had designed a dormitory for the Cooper Union that was unpopular. Apparently he was only a finalist in a design contest, the design too unpopular to even be built.