The Good Thing About Bad Architecture

The fire at Notre Dame has had me noticing architecture lately. Most of what I see, I abhor. This has for decades been true almost everywhere I have gone, both in North America and in Europe. Is it not the same, for you?

The greater the concentration of buildings erected since WWII, the worse the abhorrence.

There is in cities an odd phenomenon of concentric rings. The oldest parts of any city are of course at their centers. Where they have not been destroyed by bombs or overweening hubris, these bits are generally rather nice. They are humane in scale, and somehow or other worn down to what they ought to be, so as to support human, humane life. They have aged well.

This is so even for many of their more modern precincts, that have over the last few decades felt the most worst brunt of the clueless International Style. Perhaps this more genial aspect of otherwise brutal and stupid design is due only to the softening of age, the accretion of small shops and stalls and benches filling up the vast inimical voids so beloved of Le Corbusier and his demonic acolytes; to the confusion of new curbs, pavements, and paths, to the weathering and repeated repair of surfaces, and to the maturity of the trees.

Excursus: I stood next to the Transamerica Pyramid the other day. I have never hated it, as have so many. As an instance of relatively pure geometrical form, it has an inherent majesty, despite its enormous inhumanity. When they built it all those decades ago, when I was a young man, the Transamerica Corporation decided to plant next to it a grove of Sequoia. These are now quite grown up; young men still in the bloom of youth, they are, as the Sequoia reckon life. They are not yet breathtaking, not by any means. They are only about 130 feet high. But one can well see already how they shall one day by their impossible glory force men who venture into their precinct to sudden inward stillness, and indeed to something like worship; as though they were a sacred grove, or a great cathedral. They begin already to assert themselves victoriously against the relentless hardscape of The City, not so much as a rebuke or repudiation, but rather as blessing and ornament. And that is a good thing.

Whatever the reason, few central districts of cities are altogether oppressive and hateful. Most of them at least verge on predominant humanity, and charm. And often, the older buildings – even the humble sort, mere horrid warehouses or factories of their day and in their original intent – have by affectionate restoration been rescued, and are now quite lovely.

Apart from the noise, it’s generally rather nice to be downtown.

As one travels outward from the central core, the buildings are newer and newer. At some point, one crosses a threshold. It may be dated to about 1940 or so. Everything within it is pretty good, or at least tolerably bad, certainly redeemable by intelligent restoration and sufficient foliage.

Then, at 1950 or so – about when new building began again in earnest, after the mere stunned recovery that soaked up all capital immediately after the devastation and poverty that attended WWII – there begins a ring of absolutely horrible buildings. Neighbourhoods of death and incoherent absurdity then go on for miles. That lasts all the way out to the very edge of the city. Of the whole West, Los Angeles – the poor town – is perhaps the exemplary victim. But no town is immune.

Then begins another set of concentric rings, this time of suburbs. The older suburbs are almost always rather nice; the newer ones, not so much. But apart from their commercial strips, the suburbs are never altogether horrible. The reason I think is simply that no one – no one who is sane – has ever much wanted to buy a house that just doesn’t work – along all relevant dimensions of work – qua house. So suburbs have always been less vulnerable to the immense egregious errors that so often afflict Big Development of Big Projects. Residential neighbourhoods are simply smaller in scale, by necessity, and more granular; with the result that the local neighbourhood eyesore, that tried too hard (and that everyone deplores), is an exception to the general and conventional and mostly unobjectionable stuff that people actually want for themselves, and are willing to buy with their own money.

As you travel outward and begin to leave the suburbs behind, so begins the true countryside. Here, the natural world begins to predominate. The buildings are still mostly horrible, but even the worst of them, compassed about with trees and meadows and cows as they are, take on a certain charm. They are poor efforts of the hardscrabble poor; so far as they are able to go, so far they go. A nobility attaches to them, no matter how decrepit or ill-conceived they may be. Here are people trying their best, with what they happen to have on hand. This is vernacular architecture of the truest sort. It must first and most of all work for them, who live there, and as their lives must be lived from day to day. The trucks must be parked where they must be parked, including those now derelict, together with the old trailer, the boat, the Mustang. There is a dignity and appropriacy, and indeed a beauty in that. It is that same pragmatic fitness that we apprehend in old factories and warehouses, closer in toward the center of town, that have been lovingly rehabbed into lofts or offices or studios.

Give the most egregious junky yards of the countryside another forty years or so, and they’ll be crammed with valuable and utterly wonderful antiques.

Excursus: Our house stands at the head of a ravine. Near the bottom is the rusty wreck of an old pickup, abandoned there in the 20’s, before any of our bit of country was built. Overgrown with vines, it is not a bug of the neighbourhood, but rather a treasured feature – a relict of former days. Everyone smiles to see it.

So here’s the point of this whole post. As the years stretch on into decades, the worst things built since WWII will fall all into desuetude. They just don’t work well. They won’t weather well. And they are ugly. No one loves them. So they’ll all suffer one of two fates: either they will be destroyed and replaced with something better (or with nothing); or they will fall into ruin and after a few decades take on the same ruined charm as that old pickup.

The good thing about bad buildings is that they can’t last.

This is so for the worst products of every age, and in every department of human artifice. They sooner or later disappear. The dross is calcined, leaving behind only the gold. The reason the central districts of towns are our favorites is that the built environment has there been subject longest to the dire scythe of human and natural selection.

The tendency of our worst artifacts to dissolve and disappear is a special case of that more general phenomenon of cosmic history noticed by AN Whitehead in one of his noblest, most sweeping, most economical, most penetrating, and most trenchant statements: “The instability of evil is the morality of the universe.”

7 thoughts on “The Good Thing About Bad Architecture

  1. Pingback: The Good Thing About Bad Architecture | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 05/12/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  3. There is an aesthetics of decay that favors traditional materials. Rotted wood is ugly, but weathered barn board is rather beautiful. I don’t think it is merely romantic associations that make the ruins of a stone building beautiful in a way that cinder blocks never will be. Corrugated steel is interesting because it can be lovely, but not when it is contorted by wind. Your old pick-up is a landmark, and not an eye sore, because it is solitary and earth-toned rust has replaced paint. It is curious that rust is ugly when it first appears on a car, but then attractive when it has stripped alway all the paint and consumed the entire vehicle. I’m thinking an old man should find a consoling analogy in this.

    You are right to say that the architecture of the past looks especially good to us because of selective preservation, and it may be that post-war functionalism will be improved by some very heavy editing. The problem here in Texas is that it is easier to sprawl and leave whole districts of derelict eye sores. Grady Clay was a great observer of American cities, and he called these buildings TOADS–temporary, obsolete, abandoned, derelict structures. I think this is just about perfect. They were built as cheaply as possible, to serve a function that no longer exists, and so they were abandoned and have fallen into dereliction.

    Some film makers have tried to promulgate an aesthetic of post-war functionalism, but the morality of these films is pretty grim. I say this because I just last night watched No Country for Old Men, which makes post-war Texas functional about as beautiful as it can be. But with the possible exception of its last minute, the film pretty much sets the standard for absolute nihilism. Setting the unspeakable nihilism aside, and simply looking at the architecture and landscapes, I notice that everything is much cleaner and less cluttered than it is in real life. That functionalist motel on the outskirts of town looks pretty nice when it is set against a clean background of desert and sky, and when the parking lot contains only a couple of well-placed trucks. But in the real world the background is run-down TOADS and power lines, and the parking lot is full of dirty trucks and trash.

    • Absolutely right about the way that Hollywood made the TOADs of Texas look a bit better: they deleted trash and other visual clutter. Again, the first practical principle of order and beauty is deletion.

      The trick is to tell what is trash and what is not. Nature does this without fail, eventually. But because cultural evolution cycles so much faster than natural evolution, humans fail at it quite a lot. Viz., the iconoclasts wherever they crop up.

      The Internationalists were not then altogether wrong in their impulse to delete ornamentation and vernacular; they were wrong only in that they failed also to discriminate between what wants deletion and what does not. They threw out the babies – and indeed the basin – with the bath water.

      That sort of error – that overcompensation – is often encountered in idealistic utopians or purists. Nature, and society in its natural state, are too complex for their notions, which are not adequate to reality. Utopians I find are rather often simple minded, puerile, or even dull; they are utopian idealists because the ideas of utopian idealism are simple, and easy to understand. The same goes for heresies and false religions: they are simple – too simple.

      It’s a funny thing about cinder block. I can’t imagine it ever looking good. The odd thing is that bricks are quite similar to them in concept and execution, but look terrific as they age.

      • Thanks for the link. I guess I should be consoled that even a big brain like Feser can’t explain why old plastic is always repulsive. If he could, we would have to move on to old fiberglass.

  4. I was noticing this very same thing in a slightly different sphere on my walk with my wife today: ridding ourselves of the yoke of the nagging, nudging, centralist state (oh so many signs: “Don’t walk here!” “Don’t smoke!” “Careful of rising water!” “Thank you for your voluntary cooperation!”) is actually rather easy, in the long run. All it takes is for people to just stop. And then it all disappears, like a bad dream.


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