Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

unsuccessful, not ugly: #architalks

Every month a group of international architects and designers converge on the internet to write about a single topic and publish from their own individual point of view. This is Architalks.

The Ugly Duckling is a wonderful story that I remember fondly from my childhood. The moral is clear – just because some of us look different or sound different does not mean we are ugly. We’re just different. Kids the world over have watched this video and come away with a greater sense of empathy for their fellow classmates and a more profound sense of their own individuality. The same can be said of buildings. I know, it seems like a stretch to equate architecture and design with the Ugly Duckling, but bear with me. We’ll get there together, I promise.

When I was in college I took a course called Fundamentals of Architecture II. This course was one of a series of courses that we took prior to our more formal studio courses and dealt mainly with abstract architectural principles like scale, mass, proportion, rhythm, etc. The projects we created were not so much “buildings” as they were “exercises in architectural form”. There was no building typology, no program, no floor plan, no “client”, and no site. Our assignments were purely theoretical. It was fun and exciting and formed the basis of how we would design later in studio.

In addition to these theoretical exercises we would take small field trips around town to different buildings. One of these field trips in particular deals with today’s topic and was actually the genesis of the idea. To be honest, I think I’m more looking forward to everyone else’s post about this topic than I am my own, but I digress. Lets get back to the point. This particular field trip our professor took us on a walk to several buildings in which we were asked “is this building ugly or not?”.

This question was put to us as we reached the building above which is at the corner of Liberty and Drayton Streets in Savannah, Georgia – affectionately known as Drayton Tower. Now, you have to understand that spending your formative college years in a city like Savannah has a profound effect on your ideas about “beautiful” architecture. When you’re surrounded by some of the most impressively preserved examples of 19th and 20th Century Southern Architecture it is hard not to look at a wonderful example of Mid Century Modern high rise and think to yourself “WTF?!”. As you can imagine, we almost unanimously looked at this building and said “Nope, UGLY.”

This is where the fun really began. Our professor looked at each of us in turn and asked “Why?” One word. One single word, asked in all sincerity and it stumped every single one of us. I mean, we tried to answer in some sort of cogent way but failed miserably. Some of us went with “Well, it doesn’t fit within its context,” or “It’s out of scale with it’s surroundings,” or “The materials used are not congruent with what is predominant in the neighborhood,” (yeah, we really talked like that). All of these answers were met with “But how does that make it ugly?” Oh! We were stumped. Suddenly we were faced with the task of defining, even if just to ourselves, what defines an ugly building.

And we couldn’t do it. 

We could not come up with one single justification to prove that this or any other building was ugly, that it did not possess some redeeming quality that someone might find visually pleasing. Beauty, or ugliness, it seems, truly is in the eye of the beholder. And truly, it is a sparse example of Mid Century high rise design. The structure is clearly defined as a series of plates supported by interior posts on a heavy low slung base. Corbu would be proud. But it doesn’t have the rich details of the surrounding architecture. The scale is completely off for it’s location, taking up half a block and rising twelve stories into the sky. At the time of it’s construction I believe it was the tallest structure in the city. It was also the first building in the city built with a central HVAC system. So there were some important characteristics about the building that solidified its importance within the context of the City.

Now, with all of us still flustering over the issue of ugly versus pretty, our professor asked us “Is this building successful?” This is where our perception changed. Suddenly the same arguments as before came to mind – out of scale; incompatible materials; out of context; etc. To add to that, the building was originally designed without thought to the prevailing solar patterns. Because the building is so tall it has no shade on its eastern, southern and western facades. It was thought this would not matter since there was a central HVAC system. They were wrong. Soon after completion the south facing interior spaces were so hot the HVAC could not maintain temperatures and the glare from the sun was so bad that they added window coverings to every square inch of glass on all 4 sides thus cutting off the wonderful views of the city to block out the sun. It also gives the building that “blue-green” color because of the type of glass that is used.

This building, while important for what it attempted to achieve, was unsuccessful in execution. It may not be to the taste of some, some may even think to themselves that it is indeed ugly. But that is merely an opinion and does not have a place in architectural discourse. Your tastes are irrelevant. What is relevant are questions of the successful implementation of objective elements like budget, program, context, scale, massing, fenestration, material and proportion. These principles can be applied regardless of your personal penchant for a particular style within the architectural pantheon.

As architects and designers we have to abandon the notion of Architecture that is beautiful or ugly. Instead we have to set aside petty prejudices and think of Architecture in terms of success and failure. That is where we can have a real conversation beyond the superficial and will allow us to once again design cities and communities that people love to live in and that elevate the quality of life for all.

For more on this topic click through the other Architalks participants below:

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
ugly is ugly

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Ugly Architecture Details

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Ugly is in The Details

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Ugly

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Ugly, sloppy, and wrong – oh my!

Eric Wittman – intern[life] (@rico_w)
[ugly] buildings [ugly] people

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Is My House Ugly? If You Love It, Maybe Not!

Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
the ugly truth

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Behold

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
A Little Ugly Never Hurt Anyone

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Ugly or not ugly Belgian houses?

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
ArchiTalks #30: Ugly

Larry Lucas – Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Die Hard: 7 Ugly Sins Killing Your Community