Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ugly Architecture

Copyright, Jim Lane
St. Petersburg's Stalinist cookie-cutter apartment blocks...and blocks...and blocks.
Drab, depressing, Communist uniformity, yet pristine, as compared to Cairo, Egypt.
There are dozens of trite expressions comparing beauty and ugliness: "Beauty is only skin deep but ugly runs clear to the bone." "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but ugly covers the whole face." "Beauty is a matter of taste but ugly is tasteless." A few months ago I wrote on "Pretty Ugly Art." If a painter creates a work that falls well short of being beautiful, he or she has either failed miserably or succeeded brilliantly, depending upon their purpose, content, and rationale. If, on the other hand, an architect builds a creation that fails along that line, the results are epic, and often damned near eternal. Moreover, no architect ever sets out to design an ugly building. That is to say, when "ugly" rears its ugh-ly head, it's nearly always by accident.
Keble College, Oxford University. Ugly can evolve due to profound changes in tastes.
Having said that, ugly architecture does have a number of causes. Sometimes it's a search for uniqueness and originality that goes so far afield as to simply fail on all counts. Ugly often results from an effort to save money. Ugly can simply evolve due to changes in taste. Sometimes its the result of an eccentric client and an architect who really needs the fee. Sometimes it's cultural. Ugly can also be the result of megalomania. I've also seen ugly result from design by committee. Yes, I've heard the joke about elephants being the victim of such input. Believe it or not, whole buildings have been designed to look like elephants. And in nearly all cases of ugly architecture, the structures sooner or later become elephants of the white variety.
In all fairness to Comrade Stalin, 19th century St. Petersburg had
a penchant for a peculiarly Russian brand of ugly architecture.
I've traveled some in my lifetime. About the only close encounter I've ever had with architect-designed ugliness came during my visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. Before going on, I should point out that to western eyes, Russian architectural tastes are...let's just say "peculiar." Even in and around some of their most beautiful tsarist palaces, there is the ever-present tendency toward too much of a good thing, often copying the worst excesses from the French. A little gold leaf here and there is delightful and exciting. Gold leaf to excess is...amusing. Excess gold leaf over the excesses of Baroque architecture is flabbergasting. And Russian Baroque is about a Baroque as Baroque ever came to be. On the flipside of this, traveling by bus through residential areas of St. Petersburg, I encountered ugly architecture on a monstrous scale in the form of Stalinist era apartment blocks (top) so unsightly as to be depressing even for this bug-eyed, camera-ready tourist to contemplate. Ugly buildings are bad enough, but block after block after unending block of them, most virtually identical, and some rising ten to twenty stories from the street, becomes mind-boggling. And lest any Russian readers think I'm being unfairly biased, I saw much the same ugliness in the former Communist sector of East Berlin. The causes--committee design, "economy" of scale, and an excruciating lack of freedom to "imagine."
Cairo, Egypt--architecture only in the broadest sense of the word. Precarious
balconies, crumbling concrete, satellite dishes, and graffiti as far as the eye can see.
Only once before had I encounter such architectural ugliness. In 2010 I spent a day in Cairo, Egypt. Following WW II, Cairo saw an incredible explosion in population and the resulting urban sprawl. Whereas in Russia, there was a "cookie cutter" sameness to the architectural ugliness, in Cairo the early 20th century International Style had been allowed to run amok. I don't think they'd ever heard of a building permit, zoning, urban planning, or safety regulations. About the only thing these buildings had in common was their height, usually no more the five or six stories (no elevators), and balconies, apparently designed primarily for drying laundry. In Cairo I saw not just several blocks of ugly buildings but vast neighborhoods of such structures stretching as far as the eye could see. They fronted on narrow, winding streets, intersected by treeless thoroughfares choked with pedestrians and vehicular traffic dating from every era in the past two or three centuries. Worse...not a traffic light in sight.
Cairo, Illinois, U.S.A. Third world ugly right here in the heartland.
Hong Kong apartment high-rise--
ugliness that is simply a lack of beauty.
Now, having scourged Cairo, Egypt, for its rampant ugliness, let me point out that its namesake in this country, Cairo, Illinois, is no better...only on a smaller scale. One would think, situated at the commercially strategic confluence of two great rivers, the Ohio and the Mississippi, such a town would be a beautiful, thriving, architectural jewel. It's not. In its own, all-American way, it is every bit as ugly and depressing as its European and Egyptian rivals. The only major difference is, it's so ugly not many people want to live there. Virtually every major city on earth has its ugly, overcrowded slums. Some are worse than others. Rio de Janeiro, Port-au-Prince, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, just to name a few, where such ugliness is cultural as well as economic. If you seldom see beauty, ugly isn't so stark. Moreover, beauty is costly. Ugly is dirt cheap.
Longaberger Basket Company, Newark, Ohio--strange, but far from ugly.
Recently it's become a popular pastime on the Internet to propose lists--the ten ugliest buildings in the world, or the twenty-five ugliest buildings the United States. From what I've seen, a more apt list might be the top (or bottom) one-thousand ugliest building ever built. Thus, I'm not going to mount anything like an all-inclusive list, much less impose any rank order of ugliness. Actually, some of the buildings I've seen on such lists strike me as not so much ugly as simply strange, some even downright admirable (if not attractive) in their effort to break from traditional concepts of beauty in favor of adventurous architectural innovation. One such building, is here in Ohio, about a hundred miles from where I live. Without fail, it ends up on just about everyone's list of ugly buildings--the famous Longaberger Basket Company headquarters (above) near Newark, Ohio. Yes, it's strange, humorous too, but hardly ugly, especially as compared to the vast majority of desperately ugly buildings all over the world. Actually, for a company making handmade baskets, it has a certain charm and would seem quite appropriate.

Boston City Hall.  Even before it was completed there were calls to tear it down.
Rijeka, Croatia--war and economic
sanctions are no friend of architecture.
City hall in Boston, Massachusetts (above), is SO ugly even the Bostonians can't stand it. Built in 1968 when an architectural style known quite aptly as "Brutalism" seemed to be the wave of the future, there have been any number of proposals to sic a wrecking ball on the whole "brutal" pile of glass, steel, stone, and concrete. There have been contests to try to generate design solutions to mitigate its ugliness, none of which have been helpful in that they were all predicated on fixing the problem, rather than removing it. Even art museums, where one might expect beauty to be of prime importance, ugliness can appear to fall from the sky such as in the case of Canada's Royal Ontario Museum (below) in which an existing building (no great work of art to begin with) was apparently struck by a crystalline meteor. As recently as 2002 Melbourne, Australia, built a civic center (bottom) encountering a similar epic fail. Even a building that might be termed modestly attractive when new, if allowed to deteriorate, can quickly become the ugliest building in town. Rijeka, Croatia has such a building, known locally as the "Tower of Death" (above, left). Eastern European cities are rife with such eyesores.

Ontario Royal Museum--accidents do happen sometimes.
In many cities of western Europe, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and especially in Germany, one can often see that the architects and architecture of the past were not immune to viral ugliness. Russia wasn't the only country in Europe where the Baroque style, in the wrong hands (either those of architects or their clients), often resulted in real architectural monstrosities. The Baroque style was probably the most difficult style of all time to do and do well. Berlin even went so far as to restore one of theirs, the Cathedral Berliner Dom, heavily damaged by Allied bombing during the war. Restoration helped not in the least. It's still as ugly as ever.

Berlin's Berliner Cathedral Dom--Baroque gone broke.

Federation Square, 2002, Melbourne, Australia. Sydney has it's magnificent Opera House. Melbourne has...this. What were they thinking?



  1. Come to Toronto and experience the revival of Stalinist architecture happening now.
    Baroque was hard enough to do right. The Russians added colors on the exteriors of their Baroque buildings - it aggravated the problem even more. But tourists love it.

  2. Quinterior--

    Indeed. Our Russian guide chalked it up to the drab, gray weather the Russians endure for so much of the year and their need for color in their lives. We saw some Soviet era high-rise apartments buildings in Estonia where masses of color have been added which really added a lot to the appearance of the Building.