The problem with the architecture of our cities.

London Parliament bridge

Why our cities are ugly?

The vast majority of the population in developed countries lives in towns and cities. The developing world would like to and is certainly trying to.

But our cities, especially the ‘big’ ones, are ugly. Ugly and inconvenient.

It always made me wonder, why our cities have developed the way they did. Both structurally and aesthetically.

Ugly modern building.
This is ugly.

I haven’t come up with a satisfying answer yet.

Can you order beauty?

Apparently this question has occurred to Washington officials too.

There seems to be a preliminary draft of an order, under which the White House will ordain that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.

The title of the draft is indicative: “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”

Although, in principle, I oppose to top-down regulations and directives, initially I was pleased to hear of such an order. But on immediate second thought, I do not see favourably such initiatives by state authorities.

The situation could be easily reversed – and what can be easily reversed is not trustworthy or true.

Imagine state authorities having drafted an order for “every federal building being in the style of post modernism”. Such an order wouldn’t make my happy.

The sorry comparison.

Contrary to our modern version of organizing living and working in cities, cities and towns of past ages were beautiful – by any standard.

The ‘good old times’ is in most cases just a uneducated exclamation meant to impress and excuse our weaknesses. That being said, the cities of the past were indeed good, or at least better, as far as mere architecture is concerned.

Beautiful old town.
This is beautiful.

Of course we do not examine the situation of the inhabitants (poverty, health etc.); just the architecture.

And it is undeniable that both public and private buildings, both rich and lavish or poor and humble constructions, possessed quality and character.

Opposing conservatism doesn’t make you necessarily progressive.

It seems as if the modern and even more so post-modern buildings are built purposefully to intrigue, challenge and even insult. After all, you cannot build a building by chance, therefore the initial intention of an insulting building should have been to insult.

This attitude may be acceptable, excusable or even admirable in other forms of art (painting or sculpturing for instance). But when it comes to architecture – which by default has a profound influence on how cities are organised – this attitude is regrettable.

After all, you may or may not choose to go to an art exhibition to see a duct tape banana, and you may or may not like the whole idea; and in some context it may be ‘all right’ and even ‘brilliant – no problem with that.

But when the duct tape banana is made into a glass and concrete building, then there is a problem. This is a building that you cannot help but see while driving by, a building that is not environmentally friendly or cost-saving, a building not blending in with the natural and artificial environment, a building that you have to use if it houses a state office.

America’s Favourite Architect.

If we examine the US, for example, we can find many beautiful buildings.

As a matter of fact, in 2006 and 2007, a research was sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to identify the most popular works of architecture in the United States.

The questionnaire was addressed to a mixture of AIA members and not members from the general public.

The research resulted in a list named ‘America’s Favourite Architecture‘. Among the many styles included, the most prominent are Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, Neo-Renaissance, Victorian, Modern and Post-modern.

Out of the 150 buildings, 75 are of a ‘traditional’ style, while 75 are of a ‘modern’ style.

What is somewhat comforting, though, is that, taking into account the rank of each building, the weighted sum of ‘traditionally styled’ buildings is 4,590 versus 2,960 only for the ‘modernly styled’. This means that ‘traditional’ buildings are in average in higher ranks than ‘modern’ ones – which is a good thing.

Beautiful traditional federal building.
More of that…
Ugly modenr federal building.
…less of that.

Opposing post-modernism doesn’t make you necessarily traditionalist.

In response to the preliminary order about the preferred style of federal buildings being the classical one, the American Institute of Architects issued the following statement:

“The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”

I find merit in and agree with just the first sentence. The rest it’s just empty even deceitful rhetoric.

First of all, architecture is rarely if ever designed for the specific communities that it serves. Almost always post-modern architecture is oozing elitism, snobbery and leftism.

Architecture per se has nothing to do with protecting freedom of thought and expression in a democracy. Although this ‘argument’ is indicative of how they understand freedom of expression: as total anarchy.

Designing the future.

Architecture’s importance is vastly underrated, because it is so essential and taken for granted that we do not realise how much it affects our everyday lives.

We live in interesting times. Old principles are under constant pressure, new principles have not yet formed.

Fusion of architectural styles.
I actually find this fusion of modern and traditional styles interesting and even beautiful.

The assault on traditional values is remarkable and suspicious.

No community can exist without a set of common principles, an established way of doing things and some common social norms.

Trying to change these by force, in the name of so called ‘progression’ is the most unprogressive thing one may do.

Progress comes from letting the tradition evolve and flourish.

Every product of dubious coercion or intellectual enforcement shall be rejected by a free society and left to wither – and we need to let our cities bloom again.

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