Ugly by accident or design?

Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 5.40.52 PM.png

The illustration atop the famous critic’s website. (

Christopher Woodward, the director of London’s Garden Museum, wrote “Why Are So Many New Buildings Ugly?” for its website. He had read British critic Stephen Bayley’s 2013 book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, and describes an exchange Bayley had with architect Robert A.M. Stern:

At one dinner party Bayley asks a visiting American architect ‘Could you set out to design an ugly building?’ Robert Stern, a star of debonair neo-classicism, laughs. ‘Of course. Architects do it the whole time!’ And laughter moves the conversation on. But Stern misses the point, notes Bayley. You can sketch a parody of what you think an ugly building looks like. But no one consciously sets out to design an ugly building.

Is ugliness a consequence of aesthetic intentions, or of the process of design and construction? More and more I think it’s the latter.

Yesterday, a commenter, Bruce MacGunnigle, alerted me to Woodward’s essay, and I went to Stern’s defense, arguing:

Bruce, I have begun to read the essay from the Garden Museum site, and I must say I have to agree with Stern. Perhaps architects don’t literally start out intending to design ugly buildings, but by dint of aesthetic principles they embrace which seek to contradict and contrast traditional ideas of beauty, they are coming about as close as you can to purposely designing ugly buildings. I will read the rest of the essay and possibly post on it, and will let you know if my opinion of what the author is saying changes.

Well, I’ve finished Woodward’s essay, and I see a sort of a flaw in my defense of Stern’s reply to Bayley. I was not tough enough on the bastards. I would argue even more strenuously that yes, modernists consciously strive to produce ugly buildings. Modernism, in rejecting traditional concepts of beauty, by definition exalts traditional concepts of ugly. And ugly is as ugly does. So, yes, modernist architects purposely design ugly buildings. If they occasionally fail to carry out the principles of modern architecture and create an insufficiently unattractive building, it is accidental.

Perhaps this seems tendentious, circular reasoning, but modernists have got to sleep in the bed they have made. They have tried to dethrone traditional aesthetics, and to a great extent they have succeeded, in that hundreds of thousands of ugly buildings have been built to the applause, over the years, of hundreds of mod-symp architecture critics (the only kind that can get jobs writing about architecture). Ugly design is almost all that is taught in schools of architecture. The very, very rich spend millions to build ugly houses, and more millions to put up ugly art on the walls. The development processes in cities and towns throughout this nation and the world are rigged to give commissions to developers who will build ugly buildings. And yet while aesthetic modernists in every field of art, including architecture, have, to this very remarkable extent, succeeded in turning the world upside down, they have not changed the minds of most people. So, yes: they have failed. My defense is not circular but a reflection of basic common sense.

Regarding architecture, the people are literally smarter than the experts. To this extent, expertise, as Tom Nichols’s new book The Death of Expertise argues, is indeed dead. Nichols argues that it is being killed not by its own fatuity but by the internet, which gives people more access than ever to challenges to expertise. In the case of architecture, however, Nichols is dead wrong. The public is correct. I have argued for years that people, who all experience architecture constantly from near birth, have an innate solidity of judgment on architecture that they do not have in most other arts. The high percentage of the public that does not like modern architecture is a result of the survival – in the face of powerful cultural authority – of the individual’s intuitive (and highly intelligent) respect for beauty.

The museum director Woodward contends that ugly is not the result of intent but of “the process of design and construction.” Since he has almost finished renovating the Garden Museum, that is understandable. But he has put the cart before the horse. The process of design and construction is difficult at least in part because design and construction are nowadays often directed at the achievement of projects that make no aesthetic sense.

In the same way, the design and development process in cities is difficult because a developer and his architectural team must gain permits from committees whose members are generally sympathetic to modernist design but who are appointed by politicians who depend on the votes of a public that dislikes modern architecture. Thus, these panel members must dissem- ble – as I have heard them do time and again – in their recommendations to developers, pushing modernist design changes without making it too obvious that they are doing so. That causes confusion, misinterpretation of such rec- ommendations, and more time spent at the drawing board and returning to the panel to seek approval of revised plans, again and again.

Woodward may understand this now that he has led his museum through a year’s closure for renovations. The difficulties caused by design and con- struction are not the cause of ugliness but the result of what happens when the system’s preference for ugliness grinds up against the public’s preference for beauty.

If developers would embrace the public’s idea of beauty – and accept its preference for traditional architecture – there would be more simplicity in the process of development, fewer cost overruns, less frustration, and more beauty in the urban environment.

I’ve gotten off track, but the pursuit of ugliness, whether intentional or not, causes disruption in the function of the economy all the way down the line. I’m not sure that Woodward, Bayley, Nichols or even Stern would agree – though I’d hope that Stern would see the logic of the proposition. Anyhow, that’s why so many new buildings are ugly.

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,, 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.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Art and design and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ugly by accident or design?

  1. steve bass says:

    I’d say that about 1/3 of Modern designs are intentionally ugly, about 1/2 are unintentionally ugly and the last 1/6 are relatively tasteful.


  2. Arnold Berke says:

    H.L. Mencken’s essay, “The Libido for the Ugly,” is a delicious/malicious attempt to answer the question posed by your title.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.