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Declining Urban Exteriors

Tyler Cowen wonders why urban exteriors don't look as good now as the ones of the past did and, insofar as they exist, still do today. I'm not sure there's much that can be said about this in general, but the lovely and consistent façades along the major boulevards of central Paris look the way they do because of heavy-handed government regulation. When the streets were created, all would-be developers were told that things had to conform to such-and-such stylistic guidelines for the sake of creating a consistent "look" to the streets. The results were, in my opinion, very aesthetically successful. So to add on to the factors Tyler considers let's add the possibility that regulators have become less concerned with the aesthetic character of new developments (see, e.g., the ugly ugly condos going up in the vicinity of 12th and U).

August 3, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Yeah, but the owners/residents of those ugly, ugly condos can step right out and dine at Ben's Chili Bowl, so at least they've got that going for them.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Aug 3, 2004 5:07:43 PM

When the streets were created, all would-be developers were told that things had to conform to such-and-such stylistic guidelines for the sake of creating a consistent "look" to the streets. The results were, in my opinion, very aesthetically successful.

The problem with that approach it requires that the beauracrats possess good taste. The Parisians of the 19th century evidently had it in spades; I don't think there's any guarantee we have it now. Mandating uniform bad aesthetics would really suck (and as I recall the Parisians were pretty lukewarm, even hostile in many instances, to, for instances, La Tour Eiffel).

Many American cities, at least, look a lot better than 20 or 30 years ago. I'm sure you've heard stories about the nastiness of the NYC before you were born. I recommend catching old episodes of Barney Miller or Kojak to really get the full effect (I know the thread isn't really talking about urban conditions, but they count for a lot).

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Aug 3, 2004 5:09:44 PM

RE: those condos on U between 12th and 13th, is it just me or do they look like they were built by IKEA?

Posted by: RHJ | Aug 3, 2004 5:21:51 PM

Also, blame it on Trade Unions. Back in the day, you could hire skilled craftsmen for a few pennies a day. Now you have to pay them a middle class wage. Who's gonna hire an army of ornamental limestone carvers at those prices?

Ditto for why no-one builds subways anymore. How can cities afford it without armies of dirt cheap Irishmen to dig the tunnels?

Posted by: Alden | Aug 3, 2004 5:31:13 PM


I find the lack of ornamentation on post-WWII buildings less disturbing than the fact that modern buildings are so rarely built with the consideration for pedestrians. So many buildings put up since WWII have no space for stores on the ground floor.

The lack of stores on the ground floor is a product of zoning. Zoners wanted to separate retail and residential.

Blame LeCorbusier.

Posted by: JSB | Aug 3, 2004 5:37:58 PM

American suburbs are the aesthetic equivalent of a nuclear epicentre. Mock-Tudor meets French chateaux next to neo-Gothic things with Georgian exteriors.

Urban architecture suffers in most US cities from the rush to the 'burbs. What's left are people who live in urban areas because they're poor. The big exceptions -- dense urban areas such as Manhattan, for instance -- are in the hands of... well, of NYC landlords. (The same applies to many parts of London, for that matter.)

It's possible to have aesthetic charm without architectural consistency. Amsterdam is a dense urban area with fairly diverse architectural styling, but there are some wonderful state and co-op developments (such as the ones on the other side of the IJ) and there's a pro-active city council working to keep at least the central areas free of monstrosities.

Posted by: nick | Aug 3, 2004 5:39:31 PM

I notice that Tyler's pointing out Edinburgh, which lost a fair section of its old residential heart to fire last year. Edinburgh's actually used pretty often by filmmakers wanting to re-create old London.

My favourite residential areas are generally Georgian. Bath, for one; the often-unnoticed St John Street in Oxford. But there are other areas -- Jericho in Oxford, for instance -- that are true survivors. (There's a good QuickTime tour of Oxford here.)

Posted by: nick | Aug 3, 2004 5:47:35 PM

I think there are two American models for dealing with this.

1. Washington, DC, is more on the Paris plan, where things got built (once upon a time, anyway) according to a particular aesthetic. This did require that you liked the aesthetic in question.

2. New York had a different rule, a third way if you like, between dictating a style and laissez faire, embodied in the 1916 zoning law -- you could build so high, then you had to use x% less of the airspace up to a certain second height, then y% less again, and so on. It defined an envelope of usable space famously puzzled out by Hugh Ferriss, who sketched the ziggurat lurking in the percentages. This inspired the Art Deco skyline.

New York blew it in the 1961 (I think?) change to the 1916 law, which allowed those horrid boxy things to take over 6th Avenue (and elsewhere).

And Nick -- yes, Oxford has some lovely corners, but overall not so much I fear. Getting more crowded in city centre all the time, too, with big boxy things lumping up behind and visible over the tops of the colleges.

Posted by: slolernr | Aug 3, 2004 7:38:49 PM

It's possible to have aesthetic charm without architectural consistency.

It's also possible to have aesthetic charm while still being experimental: see the famous "Apple/block of Discord" in Barcelona for a set of buildings designed by different architects in an outrageous style that still flows together.

However, no aspect of DC architecture disgusts me as much as the Gehry addition to the Corcoran Gallery. The model looks like an illustration of the 19th century puking out the 21st. And I like Gehry!

Posted by: PG | Aug 3, 2004 7:55:34 PM

I certainly don't see why Le Corbusier should shoulder any blame for the condos going up on U. Some of them do have ground-level commercial space; unfortunately, it just amounts to shitty chains acquiring great real estate. The tanning salon chain particularly seems out-of-place in our historically and presently black community.

Posted by: Kriston | Aug 3, 2004 7:58:39 PM

On an entirely different note, was this the too-weird-to-be-true rumor about Bush you mentioned a couple of weeks ago?

Bush Using Drugs to Control Depression, Erratic Behavior
By Teresa Hampton
Editor, Capitol Hill Blue

President George W. Bush is taking powerful anti-depressant drugs to control his erratic behavior, depression and paranoia. The prescription drugs, administered by Col. Richard J. Tubb, the White House physician, can impair the President’s mental faculties and decrease both his physical capabilities and his ability to respond to a crisis, administration aides admit privately. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says one aide...

Posted by: Patience | Aug 3, 2004 8:09:19 PM

The problem with modern architecture is that it got swallowed whole by corporate capitalism and turned into a form of propaganda. Whatever good humanist ideas the Bauhaus etc people had has been absorbed into the vacuum of psychopathic personality of the modern corporation.(See the film "The Corporation" for an analysis of the corporation as a person.)

The architecture of Paris, by contrast, is a form of state/culture propaganda. It's more unified because it is intended to express the glory of French culture as seen by the French state. The problem with architecture as corporate propaganda is that corporations are in competition with one another and that's reflected in clashing, bombastic buildings. Corporations also have no interest in honoring (or relating in any way to) non-commercial culture or history.

Posted by: camille roy | Aug 3, 2004 8:10:50 PM

And Nick -- yes, Oxford has some lovely corners, but overall not so much I fear. Getting more crowded in city centre all the time, too, with big boxy things lumping up behind and visible over the tops of the colleges.

God, yes. Some of the 1960s things are atrocious. That's why I like St John Street: it gives you room to breathe that you don't get from walking up St Giles. Similar with Jericho: wandering around the small workers' houses by the canal, you'd hardly know you were in a big, bustling city. That said, there's been a trend for new college buildings to be a little more sensitive to the surroundings. Atrocities like the Corpus Christi block (a multistory carpark in disguise) have given way to better things. But they're generally situated on the outskirts of the city centre -- Summertown, Cowley Road, the Trinity flats on Woodstock Road -- rather than inside.

As for Paris, it's worth remembering that the architecture of the banlieu is quite different from that of the interior. In places, it's pretty Warsaw Pact in appearance.

And as an example of almost entirely new architecture (i.e. post WW2) that just about works (with the occasional concrete monstrosity) there's always Rotterdam.

Posted by: nick | Aug 3, 2004 8:24:47 PM

Strangely, designs that people like are not to hard to come by. They're typically in the older sections of town with "pre-war" buildings that everyone wants to live in.

I don't really think that bad architectural taste is a consequence of cheapness. After all, as MattY will no doubt remember, some of the most expensive luxury apartment and condo buildings on the Charles River are also some of the ugliest concrete monstrosities from the 60s and 70s.

[American suburbs contain] Mock-Tudor meets French chateaux next to neo-Gothic things with Georgian exteriors.

This doesn't bother me in the least. What's worse? Inconsistency in the suburbs or tract housing?

Posted by: Constantine | Aug 3, 2004 9:24:19 PM

Hey Matt, like your stance on the Endangered Species Act, you shouldn't bemoan laissez faire principles being applied to municipal design. The aesthetics of the market determine that in America -- outside of planned gated communities -- crap can be built if that's what the market supports. It's just "shit happens" -- get over it.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Aug 3, 2004 9:40:09 PM

Design guidelines are your friend.

Posted by: praktike | Aug 3, 2004 10:04:14 PM

For the benefit of people who've never seen the Netherlands, could I just quickly point out that while central Amsterdam retains most of its looks, the rest of the Netherlands is pretty hideous (Eindhoven, anyone?) and doesn't even have the typical European excuse of having been bombed all that much.

Posted by: dsquared | Aug 3, 2004 10:23:04 PM

hey, leyden is pretty nice.

Posted by: praktike | Aug 3, 2004 10:51:54 PM

Also, blame it on Trade Unions. Back in the day, you could hire skilled craftsmen for a few pennies a day. Now you have to pay them a middle class wage.Just the opposite, of course, in that all the profit was sucked out of tradecraft in the 1940s (e.g. plastering) and transferred to the owners of capital intensive industries (e.g. plaster wallboard factories).

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Aug 3, 2004 11:00:50 PM

Nee to Eindhoven, definitely. I blame Philips. And I have to add Maastricht to the list of lovely liveable Dutch cities. (It's pretty much old architecture, though.)

What's worse? Inconsistency in the suburbs or tract housing?

Well, from my perspective, it feels like a way of creating even more psychological distance between already spread-out communities. I hadn't even heard of the term 'tract housing', but now that I've looked it up... I actually like residential districts that are made up of variations on a theme. Not cookie-cutter housing, but coherent housing. Say, the Victorian houses in north Oxford (although you have to be Richard Dawkins-rich to afford a whole one, rather than a horizontal slice). Christopher Alexander's rules of thumb may sound like a recipe for gated communities, but it's not at all the same.

Posted by: nick | Aug 3, 2004 11:51:12 PM

Horseshit. Venice is pretty run-down, and still looks pretty good. Adams Morgan looks like shit, but better than Telegraph Avenue (in Berkeley). European cities look good in general because they're a lot older than we're used to and they maintain the hell out of them, which we generally don't do to neighborhoods merely forty years old.

Now if the discussion concerned streets that stay cool in the summer, one might recommend the Barri Gotic in Barcelona or the Parte Vieja in Donostia.

Posted by: bad Jim | Aug 4, 2004 3:50:28 AM

Avant Garde Culture is to blame. After World War I, painters like Picasso broke the mold. It was all about shocking the bourgeoisie and having some silly theory or movement(fauvism, cobra, cubism, abstract expressionism, whatever). This is fine with painting, no one is forced to look at paintings they don't like, but architects did the same.

Bauhaus (Gropius, Mies von der Rohe), De Stijl (Rietveld, Oud), Le Corbusier and a whole bunch of others, they all had their own silly theories of what architecture should be. First and foremost, it should NOT be decorative (which is decadent and expensive), but "honest" (showing instead of hiding the structural materials was considered honest). After World War II, they (mostly Le Corbusier) also decided that buildings with different functions (working, living, recreating etc.) should be separated so that each different function could thrive unhampered by the others: zoning.

You can read all about it in Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House.

And regarding architecture in the Netherlands: the bureaucrats that get to decide what look and feel new neighborhoods get are themselves mostly... architects. They LIKE box-like structures, they're "honest". They HATE anything "fake", such as giving a new canalhouse the facade of the old one. The last beautiful neighborhoods in the Netherlands were built in the 1920s-early 30s, the realisation of planning done during World War I. This is called the Amsterdam School. After that it has been downhill all the way.

Posted by: jasper emmering | Aug 4, 2004 3:51:49 AM

Government planning isn't necessarily the solution. Good taste is. Unfortunately in the U.S. government planning would probably be combined with bad taste, and you would get lots and lots of eyesores which all look the same.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher | Aug 4, 2004 6:54:40 AM

Tastes vary. Miserliness endures.

In my corner of Brooklyn, there are many lovely brick- and limestone-faced row houses, which were built to last. Even the least decorative of them has charm. There are also cheaper aluminum siding-faced frame row houses that simply look awful.

In America, most housing has been built with a definite self-distruct date incorporated in them. They are disposable. (Indeed, my understanding is that the glue in many of the first post-War plywood houses is disintegrating.) As a consequence, they are built as cheaply as possible, with only the barest nods toward decoration or humanization. Not only are they machines for living, they are fricking Trabants.

Pre-20th century housing that survives is the stock that was built to last, built expensively and as a consequence built with more than economical shelter in mind. In most Midwestern small towns, there is a section maybe a block or two long of lovely brick structures that would not look out of place on Court Street or even parts of Manhattan. They are of course older than the rest of the buildings not because they were built first, but because the other contemporaneous buildings in town were "temporary" buildings and fell apart after 50 or 60 years.

Anyway, the point is that our sense of previous aesthetics is skewed by the fact that most of what we see and hate of the present is the cheapest and the most temporary, and that most of what we see of the past is the most expensive and intentionally most permanent. Tract housing--or its equivalent--has always been ugly (with a few notably exceptions).

Posted by: jlw | Aug 4, 2004 10:59:13 AM

Some of the greatest architecture in NE FL, Klutho's work for example, were a direct result of our tragic Jacksonville fire of 1901. While I admire the post-fire architecture, I'd have rather our city center still looked like this.

We have restrictions in certain historic burgs around town that require uniformity in restoration and in simulating styles and colors of surrounding structures when constructing new buildings. But, you can't keep out the ugly sometimes, no matter how hard you try. --s

Posted by: j.scott barnard | Aug 4, 2004 11:00:25 AM

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