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.

City Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

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?

Old City Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

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.

Liberty Tree Plaque, Boston, Massachusetts

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.


  1. Government Center might be the ugliest building on Earth. It really is awful, and I had the same thought about its visual wasteland as metaphor for destructive government.

    That said, Boston is a conservative city in terms of construction. I don’t love modern cubes in general, but I have seen really attractive modern buildings elsewhere. The Pacific NW has a style, which combines the warmth of color with modernist elements, that strikes me as simultaneously new/efficient and human/attractive.

    I do like FUNCTION as well as form. That’s the engineer in me.

    I keep equating your blog with what I know of Gaudí, the genius from Barcelona who designed the Sagrada Familia church (among other groundbreaking buildings.) I keep forgetting if I’ve asked you if you’ve read about him? He was a deeply religious, visionary practical artist. He made a difference.

    I don’t see the problem as being a fault of “modern” design or methods, but the continued rarity of talent to design really, really well. Add computer aided design and mass production methods, and you have a recipe for lots of cheap garbage being thrown up on our lots. (Crude metaphor intentional; sorry!)

    Historically, I suspect more buildings were paid for by owners who cared about them. The economics of construction now mean most buildings are built by corporations who interpret what end users will want. The hourly wage of a craftsperson—just assuming you can get one to return your calls for a bid!—are well beyond what most of us can pay to make our homes more gracious and personalized.

    I love old buildings. I also love (a few!) new ones. But I’m an optimist. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is excellent. So much here!

      I think you hit on something important: the talent deficit. I think you’re right on about that one.

      Also, you’re right that construction tends to be about function and the economics of construction. Maybe the system itself is at fault.

      I do not know Gaudí. Time for me to look into him!

      Thanks, as always, for the excellent comment!


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