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Why is the Modern World So Ugly?
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, impressed by our wealth, stunned by our medical advances – and shocked and disbelieving at the horrors we had managed to build. Societies that are, in most respects, hugely more advanced than those of the past have managed to construct urban environments more dispiriting, chaotic and distasteful than anything humanity has ever known.
To find our way out of the paradox, we need to understand its origins. There are at least six reasons for the ugliness:
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. That would involve a host of manoeuvres above and beyond pure material necessity. In the name of beauty, an architect might add a band of coloured tiles above the windows or a line of sculpted flowers over the door, they might try to create symmetry in the front facade, or carefully ensure that the windows got proportionally smaller on every storey.
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.
The Pont du Gard aqueduct, Nimes, 60AD
Bliss Tweed Mill, Oxfordshire 1872
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, 1877
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.
Palazzo di Giustizia, Rome, 1911.
At the same time, many early modernist buildings – especially those for wealthy clients – were extremely elegant in a way that felt novel and cleansing – like eating a kiwi fruit after too much chocolate cake. It seemed that the dictum that form should follow function was about to release a highly attractive new kind of architecture on the world.
Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion, 1929
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. Out could go the symmetry, the flowers, the nice but slightly more expensive materials. It could all be as quick, ugly and cheap as possible; after all, isn’t that what the great minds of architecture had advised?
In no time, what had started as an interesting niche idea had become justification for vast suburbs and commercial districts devoid of even a semblance of charm. Sheds and brutal boxes abounded.
OCBC Bank, Singapore, 1976
In any case, the modernists hadn’t even been honest about what they were doing. They might have proposed that all they were interested in was ‘function’, but in reality, the great ones like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe agonised over each element of their building. They were – in secret – as interested in visual charm as their predecessors. They’d merely wanted to create a stir by presenting themselves as clean-cut, rigorous, engineer types; but they had – all along – remained artists. Yet this nuance was lost on the property developers who came after them. Their constructions weren’t elegantly pared down with grace. They were something far worse: sloppy, mean-minded and ugly. Except that now, because of the words of the modernist masters, there was apparently nothing one could do to charge them with a dereliction of duty. The concept of beauty had been rendered old-fashioned, it smelt elitist and woolly. No one could any more complain that beauty was missing from the world without sounding soft-headed.
Modernity became ugly because it forgot how to articulate that beauty is, in the end, as much of a necessity for a building as a functioning roof. We’ve lost the vocabulary to describe our pain.
ii. No one knows what’s attractive anyway
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.
Royal Crescent, Bath, 1775
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 from the Middle Ages. Others put forward arguments for Islamic architecture, or for Chinese, Alpine or Thai styles. A diversity of buildings began to appear around the West – and along with them, debates about how it might be best to build.
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 to.
Rafael Viñoly, 20 Fenchurch Street, more popularly known as the Walkie Talkie, 2015
The skyline of Frankfurt, Germany
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?
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 other buildings in a district and to do so politely and on time; it was certainly not to express a distinctive personality, emphasise their differences or make a splash. As a result, most districts of most cities looked very alike. You couldn’t really tell who had done what building and it didn’t matter (just as it doesn’t especially matter who baked a loaf of bread). 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 in all its fancifulness in order to appease a restless creative spirit. To ask an architect to fit in with everyone else was as stifling as asking a poet to type out the tax code.
It 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 – as if to prove their distinctiveness and worth. It was well understood that one could make a name for oneself not by turning out dignified and unassuming buildings, but through outrage and peculiarity.
85 Sky Tower in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and Grand Lisboa, Macau
Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi, RMJM, 2011
McCaul Street, Toronto, with The Sharp Centre in foreground by Will Alsop, 2004
Daniel Libeskind, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 2007
The world forgot that ‘originality’ is as unwelcome in architecture as it would be in bakery or brain surgery. One isn’t looking here for constant shock and surprise, one wants predictable rules and harmony. 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.
Stradun, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, the city’s main street since the 13th century.
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.
Spello, Italy, 16th century
Paris, 19th century
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.
Oslo, Norway, 18th century.
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.
Anywhere in modernity (Hong Kong).
vi. Mental Health
The world became so ugly because we forgot to argue forcefully enough that a concern for the visual realm isn’t an elite pastime: it belongs to mental health. To put it at its most acute, the places we live in determine the sort of people we can be.
Mostecká Street, Prague
In a degraded environment, however safe and rich our material lives, our spirits will sink. We take our cues from what the buildings around us ‘speak about’. If they speak of grace and charm, kindness and light, our mood will be buoyant, if however they seem to threaten and intimidate us, we will feel humiliated and cowed. Modernity has had little respect for our fragility. It has imagined that, so long as the roof didn’t leak, we could dwell among buildings of unsurpassed ugliness and not lose our will to live.
Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto, 2007
Humblingly, we cannot blame poverty for the ugly world we have built. It used to be a reassuring assumption that money would eventually assure beauty for all. But modernity has taught us a darker lesson: that what ultimately makes for good architecture are sensible ideas and that we have built an ugly world out of stupidity, not lack of resources.
It’s a stupidity we pay very dearly for. 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 school.
The San Francisco Federal Building, Morphosis, 2007.
As a result of our lack of education, we don’t hold our governing classes to account. We don’t know how to articulate our distaste for ugliness politically. We’ve been taught how to say we want a richer world, a fairer world, even a greener world. We are still stumbling in how to clamour that we also, desperately, want a more beautiful world.
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 architecture.
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.
Jules-Alexandre Grün, The End of Dinner, 1913
How to Survive the Modern World is the ultimate guide to navigating our unusual times. It identifies a range of themes — our relationship to the news media, our assumptions about money and our careers, our admiration for science and technology and our belief in individualism and secularism – that present acute challenges to our mental wellbeing.
The emphasis isn’t just on understanding modern times but also on knowing how we can best relate to the difficulties these present, pointing us towards a saner individual and collective future.