I hate the way things look.
No, I mean it. Cities and towns are really ugly.
Is it just that architecture suffered the same general decline as everything else? Are we so consumed with trying to build stuff fast and cheap in order to maximize profits? Has the advent of the automobile demanded so many changes that our landscapes and our traditional ways of gathering together have been forever shattered? Or has post-modern philosophy infiltrated even the very way we design and construct our buildings and public spaces?
Whatever the case, I’d like you to perform a simple thought exercise. Imagine various structures or areas in your city, town, or country that have been designated “historical” and thus worthy of special protection and preservation.
…what do they look like?
…when were they built?
…why do people like them so much?
And now try to imagine anything built since, let’s say, 1945, and think about whether they, too, will be worthy of historical preservation, or if civilizations of the future–God grant that they still be American!–will just raze the eyesores and build something new.
I use this as an example a lot, but ponder if you will Boston City Hall.
Look at this monstrosity!
What feelings is it supposed to elicit? What sensation is the citizen of Boston supposed to feel when he gazes upon that concrete turd?
And the whole area around it is a red, brick expanse of nothingness, appropriately enough called Government Center.
It used to be a neighborhood called Scollay Square. Admittedly, it had become home to Boston’s red light district, but it was a historical area. In 1962, they razed it and built a bunch of municipal buildings, including the new City Hall, that became Government Center.
This ugly, concrete, upside-down ziggurat looking thing is an example of brutalism, brut being French for “concrete.” But it might as well mean “hideous.”
So what became of the old City Hall?
Pretty, isn’t it? Shockingly, it has been designated a historical building, and not contains shops and businesses, including a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
Man, if there’s one thing America is good at, it’s preserving our legacy!
Speaking of Boston, the city used to be home to the Liberty Tree. Do you know what that is? It was a giant elm that the American revolutionaries used to meet under. The British chopped it down in 1775.
In the intervening two-hundred and fifty years, you’d think they’d have, maybe, replanted it or something, right?
Nah. The Liberty Tree is remembered only by a small plaque. This small plaque is affixed to a building. This building, on the edge of Chinatown, houses downtown Boston’s Registry of Motor Vehicles.
There are examples of this all throughout Boston, Washington, D.C., and, I’m told, London and Paris.
Compare these modern eyesores to the great buildings of the past and you’ll soon see my point.
Why do we accept this expensive ugliness? Why are we okay with America being littered with strip malls, parking lots, Jersey barriers, and Soviet-looking beige concrete lumps, when we know that humans in the past with far less technology we’re capable of crafting such great beauty by hand?
What among our landscapes built in this modern era will actually be worth keeping?
A few skyscrapers, maybe.
What do we do about it?
Short of everyone who cares about beauty and form acquiring positions in places of power with the ability to dictate law, policy, and the implementation of zoning rules, not much.
I guess we’ll just have to continuously shake our heads at the ugliness surrounding us and pray that it doesn’t rub off on us.