Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?

The New York Times turned its attention this week to the debate over the preservation of brutalist buildings. In particular, they look at the debate over demolishing a government center on Goshen, NY.

As part of this, they published a Room for Debate segment called “Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?” I was delighted to be one of the people asked to weigh in on this matter so I hope you’ll check it out.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy

13 Responses to “Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?”

  1. BBnet3000 says:

    Its hilarious to me how many of these buildings were put up in the 70s and are already obsolete. Leaking, molding, not seismically safe, etc. The raw concrete ends up looking like a cracked and water stained mess regardless, even in California.

    I remember the first time I read about this one.

    Built in 1992 and already likely to be knocked down.

  2. Gregory says:

    I think it’s a mistake to destroy buildings just because they are ugly. Architecture is not some kind of coat or pair of trousers that gets thrown out when it goes out of style. The diversity of styles is part of the charm of places like Boston or Philadelphia. Styles from every era have some merit. If municipalities destroyed everything that was “out of style”, all big cities would look like uptown Charlotte NC.

  3. DBR96A says:

    I always joke that the architectural, automotive and fashion trends from 1965 through 1980 illustrate that getting high dramatically diminishes the quality of people’s work. Those who weren’t high on drugs gave us the Ford Mustang, the Dodge Charger, the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the New River Gorge Bridge. Those who were high gave us everything else, including the skyscraper that went up in flames in The Towering Inferno. On that note, every fashion designer was high from 1965 clear to 1980, which is why home and clothing fashions were so garish and tacky.

  4. wkg in bham says:

    Article by Theodore Dalrymple
    referanced in NYT can be found at:

    I highly recommend it. An excerpt

    Le Corbusier’s hatred of the human went well beyond words, of course. What he called the “roof garden” of his famous concrete apartment block in Marseilles, the Unité d’Habitation, consists of a flat concrete surface in which protrude several raw concrete abstract shapes and walls. Le Corbusier wanted no other kind of roof henceforth to be built anywhere, and wrote passionately denouncing all other “primitive” kinds of roof. One might have hoped that Le Corbusier’s characterization of this concrete wasteland as a garden would have occasioned derision; instead, pictures of it are reproduced as evidence of his inventive genius.

  5. Rod Stevens says:

    Some of these buildings are like freeways that cut through neighborhoods: they should never have been developed in the first place. Aesthetics is a fine standard for keeping or throwing away paintings and sculpture, which store easily enough for a couple of generations to make their judgment about ultimately keeping them or throwing them away, but buildings are another story: their first purpose was use, not aesthetics. If the thing is an Edsel, let’s treat it accordingly.

  6. Jason says:

    If a building’s first purpose is use, then we should be demolishing probably 80% of our urban fabric, and the remaining buildings will be almost entirely modern. Renovating prewar buildings is really expensive (and requires a lot of subsidy). The result for residential is almost always awkward units with bad orientation, for both sun/air and views. The result for office is usually floor plates that are too small for anything but small or boutique firms which there are only so many of. Oh yeah… and this is why they’ve been getting demolished for the last 70+ years.

    I think buildings are more than just “use” and with some creativity and sensitivity and cultural stewardship buildings can adapt to today’s needs.

  7. Jason says:

    Those kinds of criticisms of Le Corbusier are always these strange kind of reactionary childish populist tantrums.

    In the same essay the author:

    Complains about the roof garden because although it has planters (which he doesn’t acknowledge) it’s mostly a hard surface community space (for pool parties, BBQs, etc.). Would he feel better if it were called a roof terrace or a roof patio?

    Tells an anecdote about a modern building “ruining” a public square… which is presumably a hard surfaced community space.

    And then complains that Le Corbusier wanted to free up the ground for park space.

    And what exactly is wrong with concrete? It ages poorly? Just as bad as limestone but no one ever complains about that. A lot of people even like it when an old building is a little sooty. Maybe the building should have used different materials? He can make a jewel-like building of polished marble aluminum and glass, and he can make building of concrete brick and wood, and their materiality is still criticized as cold and inhumane, even when the materials are opposites of each other, or when “traditional” buildings use the same materials.

    Those kinds of critiques are confused and conflicting and reactionary. A lot of people don’t like modern architecture, and they try to come up with good reasons for it, but what they articulate never holds up. And it’s because the truth is, it’s because modern architecture isn’t quaint and romantic and “traditional” and picturesque. It has nothing to do with the premodern architecture that they like because they know nothing about premodern architecture and more often than not the virtues they assign to it are not what the architects intended or how the public responded in their own time. Instead it’s just a very vague idea about “tradition” and an equally vague, idealized, revisionist history about how the world and cities in particular worked 100+ years ago. Modernism doesn’t fit into that, and that’s 90% of explanation of why people don’t like modern architecture.

    This is a round about way of getting to my point, which is that few people who promote the preservation of historic architecture actually care about either history or architecture. In a very simplistic way they like some buildings and don’t like others, and preservation is used as a vehicle for that. And that’s why many preservation groups will mobilize and fight to prevent the demolition of random non-modern buildings of no historic or architectural significance or quality, and will turn around and cheer when important modern buildings are demolished.

    Luckily there are true preservationists out there who understand that their job is to protect our cultural heritage and legacy. To protect based on significance and not on popularity.

    And soon public opinion will change on modernism. Stuff from the mid century is already getting popular in a retro sort of way. Of course, just like all previous architecture, no one will bother to understand what it was actually about, but at least it will be popular and no one will be rushing out to demolish it.

  8. kantor says:

    The main problem here is the worshipping of outdated ideas; I’ve read some of the work of Le Corbusier and it is absolutely clear to me that he was bordeline insane, as many of the “influential” people in his time (I spare you the list…). And no, I’m not reactionary; I’m an old and jaded european and as far to the left as anybody can be and still maintain a coherent discourse. The ideas of Corbu (and of most of his high priests) are indefensible in modern times and they belong to the garbage can of history.

    Thus said, I’m not going to cheer the wrecking balls (as Corbu would have done) for the simple fact that destroying something is almost never a good idea (I’d make an exception for Robert Moses’ urban highways though); some brutalist buildings will be saved, some others will be perceived only as embarassing eyesores and shall be destroyed. Is it fair? Probably not, but that’s how history works. The important thing is not to start witch hunts; but if a building is perceived as ugly and moreover it also structurally unsound and too expensive to rehab, then the wrecking ball IS an option.

    The important thing is to have a plan for what to do after you’ve cleared the dust; and possibly a plan that is not as embarassing as the one you’ve torn down.

  9. david vartanoff says:

    A dissent here. Yes, some buildings, highways, are ugly and counterproductive enough to warrant erasure. The current Madison Square Garden for one, in a better world would be replaced with a reconstruction of the original Penn Station (with enough modern amenities to comply w/ADA). The building pictured in the NYT certainly has nothing to recommend it to my eye.

  10. John Morris says:

    Often what’s needed is a rethinking and loosening of the building’s use and perhaps significant changes.

    Many of the modernist icons like Lever House have clearly taken on a second life by putting in restaurants, retail or other uses the original architects never intended.

    I’m not up on the structural issues, but many Brutalist buildings look like they would be perfectly adopted with roof gardens, wall gardens and selective new additions.

    We also have to admit that many of them were just not well made and have fundamental issues that trace to poor quality construction.

  11. Jeff says:

    We studied Le Corbusier in my Planning classes. I got the impression that I was supposed to like his buildings, or at least think them important. But, Le Corbusier got people’s attentions because he sought people’s attention: In other word, not on merit, but because he was a squeeky wheel. Le Corbusier was “acting out.” The result is these monstrosities. He thought he was important, and became so simply because he thought so.

  12. Bow says:

    After living in Indianapolis for the last 16 years,(Boston here, partner Philly), I can safely say the City County building is to ugly to survive.

    It’s saving grace is that it is so bland that after a given time, one trains your eyes and doesn’t even notice that 28 story of what ever you want to call it.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures