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One of the great generalisations we can make about the modern world is that it is, to an
extraordinary degree, an ugly world. If we were to show an ancestor from 250 years ago
around our cities and suburbs, they would be amazed at our technology and wealth - but
shocked by what we had built.
Why are things so ugly. There are at least five reasons
i: The War on 'Beauty'
Since the dawn of construction, it was understood that the task of an architect was not only
to make a building serviceable, but also to render it beautiful.
Even if the building was a practical one, like an aqueduct or a factory, architects
would strive to give it a maximally pleasing appearance. The Romans understood that a water
pumping system might be as beautiful as a temple, the early Victorians felt that even
a factory could have some of the aesthetic properties of an elegant country house, the
Milanese knew that a shopping arcade could carry some of the ambitions of a cathedral.
But when architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo. The architects
of the modern movement began to wage a war on what they now described as the effeminacy,
wastefulness and pretention of all previous 'beautifying' moves. In an essay called
'Ornament and Crime' (1910) the Austrian modernist Adolf Loos argued that to decorate
a building with anything 'pretty' was a sin against the true profession of the architect
- which he now redefined in purely functional terms. As Modernism declared: 'Form must
follow function' - in other words, the appearance of a building should never be shaped by a
consideration for beauty; all that should matter is the basic material purpose.
At the outset, this seemed bracing - but liberating. The 19th century had produced some very over-decorated
buildings, in which the beautifying impulse had reached a decadent stage.
At the same time, many early modernist buildings - especially those for wealthy clients - were
extremely elegant in a way that felt novel and cleansing.
Unfortunately, the dream quickly turned sour. When property developers heard that the artistic
avant-garde was now promoting a concept of functionalism, they rejoiced. From the most
high brow quarters, the most mean minded motives had been given a seal of approval. No longer
would these developers have to spend any money on anything to do with beauty.
In no time, sheds and brutal boxes abounded.
Modernity became ugly because we forgot how to articulate that beauty is, in the end,
as much of a necessity for a building as a functioning roof.
The ugliness of the modern world rests on a second intellectual error: the idea that
no one knows what is attractive in architecture.
In the premodern world, it was widely assumed that there were precise rules about what made
buildings pleasing. In the West, those rules were codified in a doctrine known as 'Classicism.'
Created by the Greeks and developed by the Romans, Classicism defined what elegant buildings
should be like for more than a thousand five hundred years. Recognisably classical forms
were present all over the West, from Edinburgh to Charleston, Bordeaux to San Francisco.
Then gradually, a degree of polite disagreement broke out. Some people began to make a case
for other styles, for example for the Gothic way of building
or perhaps the Chinese, Alpine or Thai styles. A diversity
In time, the debates were resolved in an intellectually extremely respectful way - that happened to
provoke some very bad practical consequences. It was decreed that, in matters of visual
taste, no one could really win the argument. All tastes deserved a hearing. There was no
such thing as an objective standard. Attractiveness in architecture was evidently a multifaceted
and subjective phenomenon.
Once again, this was music to property developers' ears. Suddenly, no one would be allowed to
describe a building as 'ugly'. After all, taste was merely subjective. You and your
friends might dislike a new district, even a democratic majority might loathe it, but
that was only a personal judgement, not some kind important edict one might need to listen
Cities grew ever uglier, but no one was allowed even to say that there was such a thing as
'ugliness'. After all, isn't taste just a very very personal thing?
iii. Originality
For most of history, it was well understood that the last thing one needed in an architect
was 'originality' - no more than one would want originality in a carpenter or a bricklayer.
The job of an architect was just to turn out a building roughly like all the others. Architecture
was beautifully impersonal and repetitive.
But in the early 20th century, a troubling idea came to the fore: that the architect
was a distinctive individual, with a unique vision, which needed to be expressed.
This might have been a liberation for certain architects, but society as a whole paid an
enormous collective price for this creative release. Suddenly, architects began to compete
to create the most outlandish and shocking forms
We lost our ability to say that what we really craved was buildings that looked a bit like
they had always done; buildings that one wouldn't ever have to wonder who did them.
iv. Sprawl
For most of history, humans lived in tightly organised, neatly aligned streets and squares
- not because anyone thought this was especially attractive (though it is), but because it
was convenient. When you had to get around on foot or at best on horseback, it paid to
keep things close together. Furthermore, it was safer, because invaders might attack at
any time, and it was crucial to ring your town with a wall, adding further impetus to
keep everything well arranged inside, like a compact cutlery drawer or toolkit.
But without anyone quite noticing, with the spread of cars in the 1920s, the pressure
to use space neatly evaporated. One could now lounge on the earth, or sprawl lazily
across it. Highways could meander between towers, bits of scrubland and scatterings
of warehouses. The nervous and precise among us who like things to be neatly lined up,
who are disturbed when a picture is slightly askew or the knife and fork aren't equidistant
from the plate, grew ever more sorrowful.
v. Keeping it Local
Architects had once had no option but to build in materials that were both natural and local.
This had two advantages. Firstly, as a general rule, one cannot go very wrong with natural
materials. You have to try very hard to make an ugly stone or wood building; it's difficult
to build very high in them for a start, so your eyesore is guaranteed a certain modesty.
And the inherent organic beauty of timber and limestone, granite or marble attenuates
any errors at the level of form.
Secondly, it can help to orient us and connect us to particular places if they don't look
like they could be anywhere on earth, if Jerusalem is built in one sort of stone and Bath in
another. But modernity introduced glass and steel, out of which large and imposing structures
could quickly be formed, and it suggested that it would be as daft to have local architecture
as it would be to have a local phone or bicycle design. The argument once again forgot about
human nature. When we say that a building looks like it 'could be anywhere', we're
not praising its global ambitions, we're expressing a longing for a building to remind
us of where on earth we are.
We pay dearly for bad architecture. A dumb book or song can be shelved and disturb no
one. A dumb building will stand defacing the earth and upsetting all who must look at it
for 300 years. Architecture is, on this basis alone, the most important of the arts, and
(to enforce the problem further) the one we're never taught anything about all the way through
The promise of modernity had been to make the most important things available cheaply
to all: no longer would lovely food or clothes, holidays or medicines, be just the preserve
of the rich. Industrial technology would open up quality for everyone. But paradoxically,
one key ingredient we all long for has been rendered more exclusive than ever through
our inability to think clearly. The one thing we can't appear to mass produce is beautiful
As a result, the nice architecture there is, most of which was built before 1900, is hugely
oversubscribed and collapsing under a weight of tourists - and the few pleasant streets
that remain are costlier than they ever were at the height of the aristocratic age. We
have democratised comfort, we have made beauty appallingly exclusive. The challenge is to
remember our longing for beauty - and to fight the forces that would keep us from acting
on it.
Our book What is Culture for? Helps us find compassion, hope and perspective in the arts.
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5 Reasons the Modern World Is so Ugly

4 Folder Collection
Summer published on July 30, 2020
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