Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ugly buildings

Why are so many modern buildings ugly and inappropriate for their surroundings? I'm no architect but the explanation offered by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros in "The Architect Has No Clothes" sounds plausible to me:
Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right. ....

.... Not only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive, attention-getting qualities. ....

This phenomenon has important consequences for the kinds of structures that architects produce—consequences whose seriousness we believe are largely under-appreciated, and, very likely in some cases, repressed. We can begin to explain common contradictions as, for example, when architects produce a building they clearly think is wonderful, but a large majority of non-architects are found to hate it. .... Architects do not see how certain designs disconnect and isolate people and create hostile environments that cannot be shared. ....
A possible explanation:
Why do architects see the world in this unique way? In part this seems to be because of the peculiar environment in which students of architecture are educated (Gifford et al., 2002). Students are typically asked to produce drawings that are pinned up next to one another, and then evaluated in a “crit” (or critique). In such an abstract setting, it is difficult for anyone to evaluate how well a project integrates with its context, if at all. Moreover, projects that are especially distinctive—object designs that stand out visually in an imaginative way by presenting an unusual structure—tend to get more attention from the faculty, and often, better grades. Those architects get rewarded, and selected out to be the later stars of the profession.

This focus on object-design has a deeper history in architecture. Up to about 1900, architects were understood to be practicing an adaptive craft, in which a building was an inseparable part of a dynamic streetscape and a neighborhood. “Blending in” respects the extant complex connective geometry, where components contribute to overall coherence. A building was assumed to meet the physiological and social needs of the people of that neighborhood first and foremost, and only then it would express its artistic qualities.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, and its emphasis on interchangeable parts, the traditional conception of architecture that was adaptive to context began to change. A building became an interchangeable industrial design product, conveying an image, and it mattered a great deal how attention-getting that image was. The building itself became a kind of advertisement for the client company and for the architect (and in the case of residences, for the homeowner seeking a status symbol). The context was at best a side issue, and at worst a distraction, from the visual excitement generated by the object. .... [more]
Guernica / Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros: The Architect Has No Clothes