“Up from Ugliness” at NYT

Rendering of new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, now under construction. (Wikipedia)

Rendering of new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, now under construction. (Wikipedia)

Here is what I wrote about a New York Times column before learning it was published not recently but in 2011. Sigh. Well, the points do remain valid.

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Ross Douthat, a regular columnist at the New York Times, has written a piece, “Up from Ugliness,” that has made leading modernist architecture critics very, very uncomfortable. He has brought beauty back into the conversation. His column may have as much positive influence as last December’s NYT piece “How to Redesign Architecture,” which argued that architects should listen to the public’s rejection of their profession’s conceits.

Like Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen, Douthat shrinks from using the M word. But he does not hesitate to invoke the real cause of ugliness in our built environment: modern architecture. Like Bingler and Pedersen, he aims his ire at the real problem:

Our architects grew bored with beauty, our designers tired of elegance, our urban planners decided that function should trump form. We bulldozed row houses and threw up housing projects. We built public buildings out of raw concrete. … Our churches looked like recreation centers, and our rec centers looked like re-education camps. Our campuses and civic spaces were defaced by ziggurats of cement. Our cities had crime-ridden towers and white elephant shopping centers where the neighborhoods used to be. Our suburbs were filled with what James Howard Kunstler described as the “junk architecture” of strip malls and ranch houses.

Douthat missed a beat by overlooking Kunstler’s coined word “crudscape,” and I have removed from the above quote some of the non-architectural things he finds ugly, such as shag rugs. But Douthat gets it. He adds:

Then, gradually and haltingly, beauty began to make a comeback.

Bingo! But Douthat overlooks the work being done by the classical revival – architects working to bring back the traditional styles people love. Houses that look like houses! Banks that look like banks! Churches that look like churches! OMG! There are a lot of architects making them now, along with craft workers who are learning how to make the ornament and do the detail work that was banned by the modernists.

Still, Douthat is merely a columnist for the New York Times. He cannot be expected to know everything. He deserves a lot of credit for giving credit to the new urbanists for bringing beauty back into our communities: “A ‘new urbanist’ movement championed a return to walkable neighborhoods, human-scale housing, and pleasant public spaces.”

That may be the line that brought the modernist cuckoos (including major architecture critics) out of the woodwork, commenting furiously on Douthat’s article.

But he seems to have confused new urbanism with the preservation movement. “For all its successes,” he writes, “the new urbanism sometimes feels more like a reclamation project than a renaissance: it’s saved the row houses of yesterday without building the neighborhoods of tomorrow.”

No it hasn’t! Not on either count.

It’s the preservationists that saved the rowhouses. But the new urbanists have built the new neigborhoods of tomorrow: new rowhouses and other lovely housing types that are popular because they buy into the traditional idea of beauty that, after centuries, was second nature for architects until modernism came along. The new urbanists make their new towns and new neighborhoods with the same idea – new places of such surprising beauty that they are now being bid up by the rich. Traditional beauty is why the new urbanism is so successful. (Ditto the old urbanism rescued by the preservation movement when it was still interested in chaining itself to bulldozers. No longer, alas; it is in bed with the modernists.)

How unfortunate that when Douthat downshifts his dudgeon into high gear, he locates the answer to the problem in Steve Jobs. He writes of “the Apple founder’s eye for grace and style, and his recognition of the deep connection between beauty and civilization.”

Where Douthat’s thinking goes off the rails is with his equation of Apple and beauty. And there is an awful lot to be said for Jobs’s eye for grace in the design of machines. But after cataloging the modernist torture of the built environment, he forgets that in the realm of “machines for living in” (as modernist founder Le Corbusier put it), ugliness remains king.

If anything, modernists – who themselves have now “evolved” from the concrete and glass boxes of Corbusier and Mies to the dizzying swirly-whirly of Frank and Zaha – are stealing Jobs’s eye for purity of line and applying it to structures far larger in scale than a Mac Mini or an iPhone. Purity of line that you can hold in your hand behaves differently at the scale of a building. The iPad as skyscraper: been there, done that. An iPhone standing tall on the skyline might tip over in a way inimical to the health of people and other living things. They are all over the place, and a big part of the problem.

As Douthat points out, very large objects that show the stigmata of design that is “bored with beauty” is where the real problem lies. An iPod is a very small object. A Maserati is larger, but still falls into the category of small objects – which we perceive in a single glance. A car may be the largest scale that Jobs’s aesthetic can hope to reach without recapitulating modern architecture’s latest failures.

Try walking next to a skyscraper whose glass and steel ram into the sidewalk producing a sterile experience, something that is much more intimidating than it is graceful. That’s a scale that Jobs’s beauty cannot handle. When Apple workers in Cupertino move into Norman Foster’s lame, UFO-esque attempt at an iBuilding, they will see what I mean.

Douthat gets what the problem is. That’s a big thing. He does not get from there to the solution, which is forgivable given decades of propaganda and misinformation in which we all, all of us around the world, have been marinaded for many decades. But it’s a start, and because it’s in the New York Times – again!!! – it is important.

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Here is my post “Between the lines at the NYT,” after the Bingler/Pedersen essay was published last December.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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