5 Reasons the Modern World Is so Ugly – Free Ebook

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 and wealth – but

shocked by what we had built.

Why are things so ugly. There are at least
five reasons

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.

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.

But when architecture reached modern times,
the very word beauty became taboo. The architects

of the modern movement began to wage a war
on what they now described as the effeminacy,

wastefulness and pretention of all previous
‘beautifying’ moves. In an essay called

‘Ornament and Crime’ (1910) the Austrian
modernist Adolf Loos argued that to decorate

a building with anything ‘pretty’ was
a sin against the true profession of the architect

  • which he now redefined in purely functional
    terms. As Modernism declared: ‘Form must

follow function’ – in other words, the appearance
of a building should never be shaped by a

consideration for beauty; all that should
matter is the basic material purpose.

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.

At the same time, many early modernist buildings

  • especially those for wealthy clients – were

extremely elegant in a way that felt novel
and cleansing.

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.

In no time, sheds and brutal boxes abounded.

Modernity became ugly because we forgot how
to articulate that beauty is, in the end,

as much of a necessity for a building as a
functioning roof.

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.

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

or perhaps the Chinese, Alpine or Thai styles. A diversity

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.

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?

iii. Originality

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 others. 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.

This 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

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.

iv. Sprawl

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.

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.

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.

We pay dearly for bad architecture. 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 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.

Our book What is Culture for? Helps us find compassion, hope and perspective in the arts.

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