The Trouble With Ugly, Mass Produced Buildings

Steven Mouzon recently posted a series of presentations on architecture to his blog Original Green. The entire series is worth looking at, but Post 5 is particularly interesting because he more or less laments the state of contemporary buildings.

After reviewing the idea that architecture historically arose from a living tradition (something he explains in Post 3) he helpfully provides several pictures of tract homes — which did not arise out of a living tradition, he argues — and notes that they could all really be the same building with only minor adjustments to “a skin-deep appliqué.”

Mouzon then goes on to list a series of reasons why this is actually a problem.

I wish I could have seen Mouzon’s presentation in person, but even after reading through the online version it’s easy to think of local examples of what he’s talking about. For all of it’s strengths, for example, Daybreak is filled with homes that are more or less mass produced industrial products. Other suburban tract homes in Utah Valley itself are even more problematic.

Pretty but generic tract housing in Daybreak.

Conversely, Provo’s older neighborhoods may be less problematic because they were built before what Mouzon describes as the “Dark Ages of Architecture.”

In any case, what I like most about this series is Mouzon’s effort to understand and explain the difference between historic (or historically-based) developments, and those churned out via assembly line production. It’s a difference that I think many people intuitively understand, but one that can also be hard to explain without simply falling back on subjective statements about ugliness and aesthetics.

Relatedly, Sarah Goodyear also recently took on architecture in an article for The Atlantic Cities. Discussing a generic and failing strip mall — and, significantly, comparing it to the grand Michigan Central Station — she points out that the kind of ugly, generic “architecture” that surrounds us is actually the result of government manipulation. Quoting from Charles Marohn, she writes,

The federal government has manipulated the market, but they have done so in order to produce strip malls just like this. From the myriad of subsidies for the auto-oriented development pattern to favorable laws and selective enforcement of the finance sector and many, many things in between, the federal government has promulgated this outcome: a nation of consumers and strip malls, the former of which are too broke and over-indebted to continue to support the latter.

In a real, market economy that lacked federal government manipulation, that strip mall would not be there.

Goodyear also notes that Marohn is a Republican and that sprawl is more of a ponzi scheme than a free market development. Moreover, the results are quite disastrous:

For generations, government policies have been geared toward creating endless landscapes of strip malls like the one Bentivolio looks at with such fondness. In the process we have gutted our traditional downtowns. We have eaten up farmland and forest. We have, as Nate Berg reported this week, endangered the lives of our senior citizens. We have engineered a world where children cannot walk or bike to school without risking their lives. We have created countless places devoid of any real social value.

There are many lessons here, however I think the most basic is that sprawl and bad architecture are indeed damaging but are also far from inevitable.


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