Is that why the buildings are ugly?

It's an enduring question:  is it just me, or are most of the buildings ugly?  In The New Urbanism, William Lind argues that some high-style architecture is deliberately ugly, on the theory that the essence of a capitalist system is alienation, and therefore all true art must alienate in order to be authentic.  He attributes this idea to Theodor Adorno.  I don't know about that, but here is a summary of what's supposed to be Adorno's thinking:
Adorno's claims about art in general stem from his reconstruction of the modern art movement. So a summary of his philosophy of art sometimes needs to signal this by putting “modern” in parentheses. The book begins and ends with reflections on the social character of (modern) art. Two themes stand out in these reflections. One is an updated Hegelian question whether art can survive in a late capitalist world. The other is an updated Marxian question whether art can contribute to the transformation of this world. When addressing both questions, Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art proper (“fine art” or “beautiful art”—schöne Kunst—in Kant's vocabulary) is characterized by formal autonomy. But Adorno combines this Kantian emphasis on form with Hegel's emphasis on intellectual import (geistiger Gehalt) and Marx's emphasis on art's embeddedness in society as a whole. The result is a complex account of the simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of the artwork's autonomy. The artwork's necessary and illusory autonomy, in turn, is the key to (modern) art's social character, namely, to be “the social antithesis of society”.
It does sound as though the idea were to make us unhappy for the sake of raising our consciousness.  When someone starts talking about simultaneous necessity and illusoriness, I suspect him of being in a serious sulk.

The Lind article has defensible ideas about the use of conservative ideas in urban architecture, including the superior market appeal of mixed-use developments and therefore the absence of a need for government regulation to improve neighborhoods; the market will do that for us if we prevent the zoners from requiring undue separation between residential and commercial functions.  I'm not sure he's really nailed the ugly-architecture problem, though.  Why is our new fire station an eyesore, for instance?  No high-concept architect set out to mirror the incurable alienation of the local population.  No architect had much input at all, except in the sense that someone with minimal training did a bit of work making sure the hallways all led to rooms and some of the exterior walls had windows in them.  Otherwise it's a metal shell with a shallow roof in random colors, and a bunch of rooms jammed inside.  It was cheap, it was fairly easy to build, and it made no concessions to aesthetic experience.

The ancient Welsh-style cottage pictured below was cheap and fairly easy to build, but it's not ugly.  What are we missing?  Why should economy of construction be ugly?

It actually looks quite a lot like my cistern, which I love, and would love even more if the cylinder were shorter and the witch's hat bigger:

Lind has other ideas about making cities livable, his main thrust being that conservatives should be able to find common ground with the largely liberal urbanist crowd.  One of his most valuable insights is that beautiful public spaces rely on money and security:
We offer the understanding that traditional middle-class values work. Without them, no city, neighborhood, or town, however well designed, is likely to function. We point out the reality that order, safety of persons and property, is the first essential. [Celebrated urbanist Andres] Duany said to me at a recent CNU [Congress for the New Urbanism] meeting, “I’m beginning to understand that we design beautiful public spaces to which no one dares come.” Indeed. Conservatives understand that for New Urbanism to succeed, it must create an arena where businessmen can make money. Urban areas that are not market-friendly will remain poor.
We could blame that problem on capitalism--guys like Adorno certainly made a career of it--but it's possible that the real problem is designers who aren't interested in making forms nearby which people want to sleep, work, shop, recreate, or reflect.  Capitalism gets a bad rap for reducing "value" to "money," but I suspect what's really irritating about it is that ordinary people get to vote on whether they find something valuable.  Their betters don't always get to prescribe it for them, or force them to feed and house artists and other intellectuals who want to be the antithesis of society.  If they don't like it, they just won't buy it.

The unavoidable conclusion is that if I didn't want the fire station to be ugly by my standards, I should have found a way to fund its construction myself.  After all, I don't find my house ugly!  Of course, I didn't expect it to express the simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of art, or to serve as the antithesis of society.  I just wanted it to function properly and delight me.


Ymar Sakar said...

The Fountainhead has a slightly different interpretation of capitalist beauty.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In my Chesterton moments of trying the opposites on for size, I concluded that a free market does the opposite of reducing "value" to "money." People trade other things for money all the time. They work where they can be creative or have security; they live where there is beauty or safety; they associate with people who are witty or virtuous. A free market is precisely what allows this.

Texan99 said...

Right--to me capitalism and free markets mean that we don't get to extract whatever we like from other people; we have to offer a trade that they approve. The trade doesn't have to be in money, though that's often a convenient measurement, especially for trades that aren't meant to be entirely simultaneous, or that are more complicated that a simple two-way hand-off.

The opposite of capitalist pricing of value isn't the reliable expert assignment of the correct inherent value. The opposite of capitalist pricing is using force to take what we like, without considering how much the other guy wants to keep it.

Guys like Adarno and Marx: I suspect their real beef is that what they had to offer wasn't inspiring a lot of other people to lavish material goods on them. It's not like they were in favor of living the ascetic life. Marx sponged off his father as long as he could, while despising him for his bourgeois values, then latched onto Engels. It must have seemed very unfair to them that their wonderful ideas weren't accorded a fair "value" in the soulless capitalist system!

Grim said...

My sense from my limited studies in architecture is philosophical, but socialist. The concept in common between the steel-reinforced-concrete structures and the bland pre-fab was that it would enable the razing of poor, blighted neighborhoods and their replacement with modern, sturdy structures that would be better places to live. The Bauhaus style was supposed to be characteristic of this ideal of using newly-cheap industrial materials to produce no-frills constructions.

There have been attempts to improve upon the aesthetics in more contemporary works, but it's hard to get past the economics of cheap-but-sturdy. Generally those that achieve it are major corporations, to AVI's point, but even they often fall victim.

But we have a real architect around here, who can speak to this with much more authority than I can!

Grim said...

Er, missing an important few words in that first sentence:

"My sense from my limited studies in architecture is that the ugliness is philosophical, but socialist."

Texan99 said...

Yes, I'm always hoping to hear from him on this subject. Well, on all subjects, really.

E Hines said...

...concept in common between the steel-reinforced-concrete structures and the bland pre-fab was that it would enable the razing of poor, blighted neighborhoods and their replacement....

Well, that's what Cabrini Green and all the rest of the Chicago (and other cities) Urban Removal programs were about. Raise the blighted neighborhoods (blighted according to the Know Betters in the government), and...we'll get around to the rest later.

Never mind that the cookie cutter Levittowns did exactly that, only those builders got around to the later part pretty quickly.

The ugliness of modern "architecture" is because the architects all think we're as dumb as Gruber says we are, and...we must be, because we fund that stuff.

Eric Hines

Matt said...

I think there may actually be something to the "reducing value to money" argument when it comes to groups making decisions -- cost figures probably come across as fairly objective, and thus easier to base agreement around in a group with varying and diverse priorities.

My aesthetic tastes must run differently than those of others here; I find the fire station to be plain, perhaps, but hardly ugly. That said, I wonder how the cost-benefit analysis for a publicly-funded structure works out. Is the intangible public utility of a prettier fire station worth spending more of the taxpayers' money to build it?

One option could be a variant of Tex's notion: the government puts up the money that would be needed for a basic (and presumably drab) utilitarian structure, while the people who care what it looks like undertake a crowdfunding project to collect the additional money for something more aesthetically pleasing. The risk I see here is that, in the (near inevitable) event of cost overruns, the government and taxpayers are likely left holding the bag for costs generated by the private interest.

Texan99 said...

We got a bit of grant money for this thing, some private and some public, but most of the money was from several years' worth of totally voluntary fund-raising. Pretty much no one who was involved in this process has any problem with how the building looks. I think they rather like it. I don't even think they wish they could have made it more attractive by finding more money; they probably would have used the money on something else instead, like adding an equally ugly community center.

I'm not convinced it would have cost more, or much more, to relieve the ugliness. There's something else going on there; I just don't know what it is. A complete loss of the idea of beauty. It doesn't cost more to choose colors more thoughtfully, for instance.

The old station was a crumbling pit with no room for anything. The new station is bug-free and reasonably functional. In the past, though, it seems that it was possible to make buildings functional and cheap without necessarily making them hideous. Farmers in destitute communities pulled off better results. I don't grasp what's changed.

douglas said...

My goodness, this post prompts all sorts of thoughts, and much of those more questions than answers). My brief and immediate response will be to the issues of the fire station- it appears to be a steel building that's essentially pre-fab, or at least from a catalog- now there's nothing wrong with that, but of course the difference I think with the way buildings were built in the past is that it took a fair amount of effort to build even that humble Welsh cottage- it would likely have been built my just a few people over the course of maybe a few days to a week, I imagine (not counting gathering the materials- a considerable effort in itself). Design time was nil- it follows traditional design. Now, that metal building company started to provide farmers, small industry and similar clients with functional structures- and so they do- and storage sheds, tool garages and such don't care much about windows or how pleasant the spaces within them and around them are- just that they keep the weather at bay and the critters out. Now, to use that for a fire station - it works well in terms of housing the equipment and keeping out the critters, but what of the fire fighters? Now the first mistake to make at this point would be to think in terms of aesthetics (at least in the common parlance) and how to make it look better- which often results in choosing some style and gluing on elements that may or may not fit so well with the underlying structure (both physical and conceptual). What we should be more concerned with are aesthetics in the truest sense- and through the considerations of how a space communicates with it's occupants and works with them to achieve the desired ends- one might refer to this as the ethics of architecture. This was probably the main message we tried to start getting across to the first year students- it isn't about making 'cool looking' objects, but about spaces that were harmonious with the users and their needs and desires.

I'll have to come back to this later- it's late- but there is much for me to comment on- and perhaps ask about- regarding this post!

douglas said...

But first, perhaps I should try to make my thoughts a bit more clear! My point about the effort involved in building structures in the past was that if you were going to invest the effort at building pretty much anything, you'd try to do it nicely. Now, can be so easy to build something like that fire station- just order it up out of a catalog, and bolt it together, and voila! fire station! But that doesn't make it good architecture- something you want to be in.

Of course, the more we are required to be compliance officers, the less we are going to get paid to spend time designing good spaces- never mind the problems in the philosophy of architecture at the moment, although there are great issues there to be sure.

As I said, more later.

Texan99 said...

It's true--keeping the rain off the equipment was of course priority #1. The next decision is for a basic metal building of the sort you order off a list of offerings from the company that supplies them. By the far the cheapest is a rectangle with a shallow roof slope and no eaves. In this case, we got one rectangle for the truck bays and another stuck on one side for the personnel spaces. It's air-conditioned, so the windows aren't operable and no one cared about shading anything. It's electrically lighted, so the windows are minimal. Lots of the rooms are interior, anyway. The bathrooms and the kitchen were placed on exterior walls, but with no windows. The bunkrooms (for hurricane-emergency habitation) are interior, perhaps for the extra security. You can see that natural light and air were non-issues.

After all those considerations, the only decisions left were how to stick a certain number of rooms inside, with hallways as necessary so you could get to all of them. I can just about guarantee you, having talked from time to time to the Fire Chief and others, that zero thought was given to whether the spaces would please their inhabitants. That kind of talk only gets you puzzled looks.

We do use this building for community fundraisers, where a lot of the activity is outside, so it ought to have been important what kind of exterior spaces were formed by the building, but it wasn't. That simple porch on front, for instance, is almost the nicest thing about the place. We could have had a lot more of that kind of thing without exploding the budget. Instead we pour a bunch of concrete and put up big tents for events. Big tents are surprisingly expensive.

Oddly enough, the interior finish is pleasant, rather like an apartment: sheetrock and standard residential doorframes and baseboards. The floor is polished, stained concrete, which is both durable and pleasing to the eye. Sometimes I'm so ravished by the absence of mildew smell and the presence of adequate electrical outlets and gleaming bathroom fixtures that I forget about the dreary exterior and floorplan.

douglas said...

Now that I've had time to go a little deeper into this- you covered a lot of ground in one post, Tex!- I have more to comment on:

Adorno was quite popular with the graduate students when I was in Undergraduate Architecture school. Most of the undergraduates weren’t so interested. Not enough indoctrination. This seems like a good, and more honest than most, summary of him.

I already commented on the firehouse, so- I thought the Lind article was not that interesting- it’s all the critiques leveled at conservatives that are to me caricatures, but do exist, and people like this provide them examples- simplistic appeals to previous formulae (styles), and nostalgic longing for times past (streetcars and pre-war America). The problem isn’t that we don’t use neo-classical style or Federalist style, or whichever approved style- it’s that we don’t even understand how those styles were developed and why they worked to produce, more often than not, beauty in architecture. Had he Gothics followed their prescriptions. We’d never have a Chartres Cathedral. They prescribe formulae, rather than the pursuit of and understanding of the essence of beauty. They proceed to attack Modernism and in particular the International Style, and while I’m sympathetic, I think the arguments against them are insubstantial and weak. The problem with the International Style isn’t that it makes use of steel, glass and concrete- it’s that it’s done in service of a Marxist ideology, and so it doesn’t make good use of those materials, and it’s goals are flawed. A motorcycle can be a beautiful thing, but it’s nothing but industrial materials and language- again, the problem isn’t the materials.

Architects who most people would refer to as ‘modern’ but who are not working in the International Style have made wonderful and dare I say beautiful works of architecture that effectively satisfy both their aesthetic and functional requirements.
Examples would be the Getty Villa Expansion by Machado and Silvetti, E. Fay Jones Thorncrown Chapel, and I think you could include Frank Lloyd Wright also.

Generally, I think those working under the influence of the Phenomenology philosophy in contemporary architecture are generally more on the right track (the work of Peter Zumthor, the writings of Juhanni Pallasmaa and Karsten Harries for instance), though there are still hangover effects from Modernism and Post-modern ideas. In the sense that people matter it at least gets away from using people as the means to making manifest an ideology, and shifts the focus back where it belongs- on the people using architecture.

This is still an issue I'm working on- I'd really in a way given up on having an ideology anymore for a while, but I have to thank Grim for reinvigorating me by asking questions about beauty- in the absolute sense, and that encouraging me to go back and look to the essential question instead of the usual 'which team are you rooting for' approach. No one seems to do that anymore.

Texan99 said...

I agree with you about the beauty of modern architecture. I do wonder sometimes if the only beautiful modern architecture is created by people with no budgetary constraints. Notre Dame du Haut is one of my favorite buildings, but not what you would call a practical construction by a penny-pinched congregation. Am I just being too impatient? Did radical shifts in materials and techniques of past construction take longer to translate themselves into beautiful uses? There can be an initial attempt to parrot the forms of the past while losing their point, but in the end people figured out the peculiar beauty of the new materials and methods, even on a budget.

We've been watching a show about "Tiny Houses," which week after week produces examples of quite beautiful and inexpensive little jewels. The designer/builders have a knack for this genre, but they're hardly towering figures in the world of architecture. Their only message seems to be that you can both downsize and be delighted with your home. The trick, as you say, seems to be to focus on the experience of the people using the spaces.

Streetcars may be a little twee, but I do think it's true that people are happy using them in a way that they're never happy using a bus. Maybe it's the difference between an airless box of a hotel room and a charming outdoor cafe on a veranda. Normally I'm in favor of public transportation that's not nailed down to a predetermined route, but streetcars and trolleys work well in dense downtown areas with lots of stops for restaurants and businesses.

I also suspect Lind is right about mixed-use zoning. All of the happiest places I've ever lived were either thoroughly rural or mixed urban. The suburbs were the least satisfying, and yet they were the places where neighbors were most fanatically concerned with combating the evils of home businesses--to the point where HOAs have been known to harass people for running daycare or cupcake businesses from home, or even telecommuting. When my Houston neighborhood was revamping its deed restrictions, this was a hot topic. Everyone's afraid that a lawyer's home office today will lead to a Stop-n-Rob tomorrow. And yet the most humane apartment I ever rented had a coffee shop downstairs. It's not the presence of commercial establishments that's damaging, it's the type, especially the box-in-a-parking-lot type.

Texan99 said...

PS: After more than 100 years, designers remain perplexed by the need to accommodate cars.

douglas said...

Your comment about impatience is a good one- developing new techniques and standards takes a while- generations perhaps. Add to that the fact that we are dealing with a massive influx of both new materials and methods- whereas in the past it was really development of techniques- until the advent of iron and steel, the materials were pretty consistent- and as you indirectly point out, had quite a long time to have techniques and production developed and refined.

I will say that the fact that architecture schools teach almost nothing about proportions (in a formal sense) is hurting things immensely. It's a particularly critical element of good architecture- when you understand the Greeks, you understand this- you just have to get past the particular forms or styles, and people have such a hard time doing that.

I too enjoy a good streetcar trip, but as you mention- it works great in compact downtown areas and the like. Sprawling Megacity L.A. just isn't the place for it as a main means of transport- it's secondary at best, except for those choosing to live in a downtown area and who can manage to keep their orbit small. I have kids and interests that make that quite difficult, as do most people. You'll notice that most of the people pushing for more bike lanes and public transit are young and single or at least childless. There's a reason for that. I think in a city like L.A., they need to consider public transport in more of a multi-noded web model where you can drive or take a train to an area, then get around that area either on foot or bicycle or on streetcars. But to be honest, I've yet to see anywhere in L.A. that public transport can get me there as fast as a car, in even in dense rush hour traffic- and that time is valuable to me- it's time with my kids while they're still awake, and I'm not going to give up my car and time with my kids. I really don't get why it's so hard to design for cars and people at the same time. I think it's just the Marxist 'egalitarian'/green thing really.

Mixed-use is better, but why not just let it fly like Houston does with no zoning- people will build what they think an area needs, and people want, and if no one does, it'll get changed or razed and something else built- again, the free market works, no?

Developers are also getting better at making shopping areas that are nicer and more people friendly, but does Home Depot or Walmart really need to be that nice? You go to get what you need there. Shopping of a less necessary type is well served by being mixed into an area where it's pleasant to spend time. Rick Caruso has figured this out and has made some very popular and profitable shopping centers in the L.A. area using some of the principles of the new urbanism and conservatism. I have my critiques of his developments, but they're nice places to hang out, to be sure.

Texan99 said...

I grew up in Houston and lived there for more than 40 years. The no-zoning thing always worked for me, and was mostly popular there. But Houston's residential neighborhoods are most often covered by deed restrictions that strictly limit both multi-family housing and commercial development. When there was anxiety about commercial development, it focused on increased traffic and ugly parking lots. It does seem difficult to solve the design problem of what to do with a lot of cars. Parking lots are usually dispiriting.

Now I live in a small town in which many things can be bought only at the WalMart. That's a dispiriting experience, too, working your way through the endless parking lot, and it doesn't do anything to increase the charm of this small tourist town, either. Our one grocery store, an HEB, put a little more effort into preserving a few trees in the parking lot, which helps immensely, and into making the facade of the big-box store more human-friendly.

The car/people thing is a conundrum. The best approach I've seen is to put the building up on stilts and provide parking spaces under it. I suspect that's an expensive solution that makes sense only when real estate is tight.