Concerning the inexorable tendency of modern architecture to be boring

When you own a building, you don’t want it owning you. You want the building to serve your purposes. You don’t want to be reduced to its mere caretaker, while it stubbornly refuses to serve your purposes.

Consider that graph, the one concerning the moment when humanity went from a fixed and static world, to a dynamically improving world. At that moment in history, a building became something different from what it had been. It used to be something permanent. The longer it lasted, the better. As its owner, you wanted to keep it working, to keep it as it is, rather than allowing it to crumble. In such a world, the better and more solidly the building was built in the first place, the better. Its purpose would last for ever.

But in the new dynamic world, the world after The Kink, buildings become something you, or whoever then owns your building, might one day be wanting to replace with something bigger, taller, better, more efficient, more productive, built with technology that does not now exist and can hardly even be imagined. This is especially true in cities, the places where the new dynamism of the world is most in evidence.

So, when you build a big new building in a city, the one thing you really do not need is a world that one day decides that you or whoever you sell it to must, from now on, become the curator of this building, a building which neither you nor anybody who ever owns it may at any time in the future destroy, and replace with something bigger and more profitable.

In Britain now, this dreaded arrangement is formalised in the form of the Preservation Order. When one of these things descends upon your building, that building ceases to be replaceable. It ceases to be a means to achieve dynamism, and becomes a potential barrier to it. But the same thing can happen more informally. If The People want you not to destroy the building you thought you owned, they are awfully liable to get their way, whatever they may or may not have said in the past.

You may be saying: Oh come on, that’ll not happen for decades. Meanwhile, you can get plenty of use out of your new place. The trouble is that future usefulness, future cost-to-benefit ratio feeds back into the price now. Even the most short-termist owner must still consider what future owners will or will not get from his building, even if he himself cares nothing for the future and is himself the very personification of pure greed, for lots of money, now. A Preservation Order on your newly constructed building will reduce the usefulness of the site in a century’s time, and hence its value now.

All of which means that there is a relentless tendency for builders of new urban buildings not to want them to be the sort of buildings which people in general will miss, when a later owner may want to replace it.

There is, in short, an inexorable tendency for “modern” architecture (by which I simply mean all architecture since The Kink in that graph) to be ugly, by which I simply mean what is widely considered to be ugly.

There are lots of other reasons, aside from the above reason, why “progress”, “modernity”, and so on, are often so disagreeable to contemplate. And I still think that The Kink was and is a wonderful thing, from which much beauty of other sorts has resulted. But progress and modernity are not as pretty to look at as many of us might like, and I think that what I’ve said in this posting goes some way to explaining why.

LATER: As soon as you publish something, you then see it with new eyes (the eyes of potential readers), and what I now see is that the word “ugly” is perhaps wrong. What I mean is something more like “nothing”. Not ugly as in actively repulsive. Just “meh”, as I’ve never said before myself, but as I’ve heard lots of others say. Buildings that communicate not anti-beauty, more like non-beauty. The point is, if you want to knock a building down, you want people not to feel they might miss it. You want them to feel, basically, nothing. Oh, they’re knocking down that building, you know, the one, that one next to the … blah blah mumble mumble. Oh, that. Oh well. If someone thinks a building is ugly, chances are someone else will like it, and before you know it, politics is happening. That, you don’t want.

LATER: I didn’t want people coming here to be told that modern architecture is ugly, so I changed the “ugly” in the title to “boring”, which is nearer my mark.

9 thoughts on “Concerning the inexorable tendency of modern architecture to be boring”

  1. I understand the argument but is there any evidence it’s true? Personally I think modern architecture is beautiful and just as beautiful as ancient architecture. Of course there are dud buildings and I think in the 60s the ideas got ahead of the technical ability to realise them so a lot of them didn’t last well. I think part of the reason neo modernism happened is that the technology caught up with the vision. And I’m not just talking about starchitecture. I love a Georgian or Nash terrace but I think the buildings going up in the Royal Docks or the Elephant and Castle are just as good. And also I think Prince Chuck approved ancient pastiche is not as good. Now you may not agree because it’s very subjective. But for your argument to be true it has to be the case that rather than the designers of modern architecture sharing my aesthetic their paymasters have to sit around saying that a design is too aesthetically pleasing and may actually stand the test of time and could you please make it uglier so it doesn’t. Do you think they actually do that? Seems a bit conspiracy theory to me.

  2. Alastair

    I think my first “LATER” is part of the answer. “Ugly” is the wrong word. Which is why I changed ugly to boring in the title. Sorry for the muddle.

    This blog is me thinking aloud, and sometimes getting in a muddle.

    No, I have little knowledge of the things developers and architects say to each other. But if the actual built environment is anything at all to go by, there must be conversations about buildings being striking and interesting, even starchitectural. And other conversations about them being less striking and more functional. Machines for living in, and working in. More, or less, expensive. Surely if an architectural practice sells itself as doing one, or the other, developers will pick and choose depending on what they want.

    You don’t pick Gehry if you want plain rectangular. You don’t pick Bland and Blander, if you do.

  3. I’m with Alastair. I think that most of the modern architecture going up in London – the stuff in and around the Royal Docks being a good example – is very attractive, and I like it a lot.

  4. Interesting theory. Is there any falsifiability?

    We could look at examples of countries without strict planning laws. I think things are pretty lax in Japan. And there modern buildings are awful. Are they long lasting? Again, no. “Scrap and build” as my Japanese friend tells me. Of course, this could be because Japan has lots of earthquakes and so for a long time there was no point in designing nice buildings because they would only fall down a little later.

    What about Russia? That seems pretty immune from Western nostrums maybe this applies to planning as well.

    “It’s an old building.” This was said to me about an office block that was barely 20 years old. And indeed it was (mostly) demolished. Apparently, the frame was kept. How does that make sense? Possibly because there are lot of old systems: heating, lighting, security, air conditioning, fire alarms, intruder alarms that are expensive to maintain and it turns out it is almost as cheap to knock the whole thing down and start again.

    But I wonder if there is another problem here. While I am largely indifferent to the Shard, Gherkin, Cheese Grater and Death Ray, you don’t seem to be. It seems to me that these are precisely the sort of buildings that will be listed in the future and that their originators took this into account when they were built.

  5. Re the Shard, Gherkin etc., the bigger a building is, the less likely anyone is going to want to knock it down at all soon, so the penalty from making it “iconic” (i.e. something people will later want to preserve) comes later rather than sooner.

  6. I think my instant change of tune, in my first “LATER” is important. What counts is strength of feeling. People feeling strongly means that some will feel strong that it shouldn’t ever be knocked down and replaced.

    Consider Brutalism. Lots still consider this a totally ugly style. But a significant and vocal minority now thinks some Brutalist buildings ought to be preserved. (I agree, but that’s a personal opinion of mine, and personal opinions only count in this argument if they are more widely shared.)

  7. The biggest problem with my theory is the sheer unpredictability of public taste. Who can guess which buildings will, as and when the time comes, arouse a preservationist frenzy, and which can be destroyed with no fuss or delay?

    Predicting the future value of something like a little tree seedling, being grown now to make timber in a few decades time, is a doddle compared to predicting aesthetic politics.

    As I say, the bigger a building, the less likely that anyone will want to demolish it at all soon.

    However, when it comes to less big buildings, like urban housing or medium sized office blocks not in the high cost centre of big cities, more in the inner suburbs, I suspect my theory does make quite a bit of sense. The last thing you want there is a smallish, yet “iconic” building, standing slap bang in the way of a much bigger building, in what is then the expanding city centre. And that sort of thing could happen quite soon.

    It is noticeable how many big and boring blocks have been demolished in the ever-expanding edge of the City Cluster, to make way for the current wave of really Big Things. You forget their names, in the nature of things, because when they were demolished nobody cared. And I’m thinking also of things like the biggish and rather dreary blocks that got removed to make way for the Shard.

  8. I should shut up. It’s not that I don’t care about other people’s comments. On the contrary. The problem is that everything I say seems to require modification, on-the-other-handing. I feel as if I am constructing a theory out of jelly rather than anything solid like lego bricks.

    My starting point is that if you own a building, other people tell you you may not replace it is bad news. So, question, how does that affect how you build it in the first place? It surely must have some effect.

    Blah blah. Enough. I await the comments of others with interest, but will confine myself to thinking more on this.

  9. In about 1985, the Thatcher government looked at east London, and decided that the best way to deal with it was to remove some planning laws, tell the Labour councils that ran the are to go themselves, and invited developers to do what they wanted to, in certain areas at least. In particularly, there were no height restrictions at Canary Wharf. That got us some office towers of the kind that American banks and other big corporations like. Many big banks then moved from the City of London to Canary Wharf. This worried the authorities of the City, and they relaxed their own height restrictions. They did not relax their planning restrictions especially in other ways, and so to build a tower in the City you have to demonstrate architectural distinction before they will let you build it. This has led to Gherkins, Cheese Graters, etc, whereas buildings at Canary Wharf etc are much more generic towers. I have taken foreign friends to rooftop vantage points in south London where both clusters are visible, and they have commented on how different the two clusters are.

    Which of these clusters is going to be considered more distinguished by critics of the future? I have no idea.

    think that one consequence of the events of 2020 is that the need for posh city centre (or thereabouts) office space is probably about 50% of what it was a year ago, so I am not sure what these buildings are going to be good for going forwards. I guess we will find out.

    On the other hand, the public housing tower blocks of the 1950s 1960s and 1970s that are all over London. Put a bomb under every one of them tomorrow, frankly.

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