The Anti-Ugly League

When I was in college, I dated a city planning major for a while.  A friend of his belonged to the Anti-Ugly League, an organization that had its roots in Britain but apparently was trying to branch out into the US.  Its mission was to oppose ugly architecture, either by written criticism or by public demonstrations such as picketing with signs like “This is an ugly building”, and occasionally by throwing eggs at really ugly buildings.  I just tried googling the league, with no results, so I can only conclude that they have shut down, probably because there was just too much work for them to handle.  Apparently, in the UK, Prince Charles has taken over some of their job, as we see from That Other Blog.  The Chicago chapter, if we ever get around to starting one, should probably be called Friends of Donald Delgade (he being the hapless ex-mental patient who drove his car through the glass walls of the Thompson Center in Chicago in 1999.)

Since my brief relationship with The Planner, I have become something of an architecture buff myself. In college in the early 1960s, I audited a course on the history of American architecture.  A few years later, Mr. Wired and I moved to Chicago, where roughly half of the buildings we had covered in the course had been built. By that time, half of them had been torn down.  But I actually had the privilege of working in two of those remaining, and living two blocks away from a Frank Lloyd Wright house.  (And my favorite niece is an architect.)

All of which has led me to a top-of-the-head classification scheme for architecture. There are Great Buildings, and there are Good Buildings.  Great Buildings are impressive to look at from the outside, in isolation or in their geological and architectural setting. What they mainly impress the viewer with is the importance and greatness of whoever or whatever commissioned the building in question.  The ultimate Great Building is the Great Pyramid of Giza.  Note that the Great Pyramid is not only not intended to be lived in, it is in fact a tomb.  Once completed, it was never intended to be seen from the inside at all.

As opposed to Good Buildings, which are judged by how well they suit the people and entities that live and work inside them.  The major architectural thinkers tend to do most of their thinking about Great Buildings, perhaps because it’s easier and pays better.  By definition, after all, anyone who can commission a Great Building can afford to pay for it.  Whereas most of the people who will be living and working inside buildings can’t.  Working out ways to get Good Buildings paid for is a major economic discipline in itself.

Some horrible examples of attempted Great Buildings at their worst: in the 1950s and 1960s, it became fashionable to construct major public buildings, such as schools and colleges, out of poured concrete, and with flat roofs.  I had the misfortune to teach in several such buildings in Chicago.  Over the following 20 years, all of them developed leaks and cracks, and ultimately crumbled.  All of them have since been either completely rehabbed, or abandoned and rebuilt altogether.  The big secrets are that (a) flat roofs don’t work in cold wet climates like Chicago’s; moisture doesn’t pour off them as it does from pitched roofs, so, since it has to go somewhere, it is likely to end up inside the building, or worse still, inside the walls of the building. (Flat roofs are for deserts!) and (b) poured concrete is susceptible to expansion and shrinkage in extremes of temperature, which sooner or later leads to cracking, leaking, and crumbling.  As an added bonus, buildings that leak sooner or later attract mold spores and become medically dangerous to those who live and work in them.

(In a supreme irony, one of the law students who worked for me a few years ago had been an undergrad architecture major at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which prides itself on most of its buildings—sorry, Great Buildings–having been designed by Mies Van Der Rohe—flat-roofed glass boxes.  My student’s opinion of Van Der Rohe was seriously impacted by the fact that one of those buildings, in which he had his studio, leaked all over a major set of his drawings and nearly cost him his degree.)

Even the Great Buildings I really like, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, have the same problems.  Falling Water is, well, falling.  The Robie House (two blocks from where I live) is in a constant state of rehabbing.  One would think that the first requirement for Greatness in a building would be that it stays up without undue effort and keeps out the weather.

Architecture, in addition to aspiring either to Greatness or Goodness, has politics.  Totalitarian architecture, like that sponsored by Hitler and Stalin, is readily distinguishable from democratic architecture like the Acropolis.  The easiest way is to look for doors and windows and other “envelope penetrations,” as engineers now call them.  The Acropolis has them all over the place. Admittedly it is situated in a mostly warm and dry climate.  But fascist architecture—regardless of climate–has as few as possible, often no windows at all, or no street-level windows, and only one or at most two doors.  This enables The Authorities to monitor and control who comes in and goes out.

You may have noticed an increasing proliferation of fascist buildings, both public and private, especially since 9/11.  Older buildings have for many years been caught in the crossfire of a war between architects (who try to design buildings with doors in all the most convenient places for ingress and egress) and administrators (who then lock all but the single least convenient one.)  Additionally, in the years since the time of Hitler and Stalin, more and more public buildings have been erected with their only entrances in places other than on a pedestrian-accessible street—one floor up from an entrance kiosk, down in a parking garage, or around the corner in a parking lot. And that was before metal detectors.

It’s easy to talk about Great Buildings and their drawbacks.  It’s harder to define Good Buildings, much less analyse them.  Christopher Alexander has taken some useful stabs at it.  Stewart Brand, in How Buildings Learn, talks about the ways a building can change, for better or for worse, throughout its lifetime. In the process, he says some useful things about how Good Buildings change for the better.  Aside from that, not being the Prince of Wales, I haven’t had the time to construct a reading list on the subject, much less read everything on it.  But we should be encouraging underemployed royals, and anybody else with the time and the inclination, to think about this stuff seriously, since there isn’t enough money in it for the rest of us to do it for a living.  Buildings shape the lives of the people who live and work in and around them, just as they are shaped by those people.

Jane Grey

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