The Ugliest Excuse for a Building You’ve Ever Seen—Ever

by Tony Chavira

So you’re driving leisurely through L.A. one day and thinking to yourself, “Man, the houses in this neighborhood are pretty nice.” You meander along at a slow speed so you don’t accidently slam into any oncoming traffic and suddenly you see it: some trashy piece of crap building that’s basically ruining the whole neighborhood for everyone. (The people who built it might actually love the design and color scheme for their home, thinking it to be ultra-modern or throwback in some way.)

Everyone knows an ugly building when they see one; though sometimes ugly is just an architectural fad that’s out of style. Here’s a quick rundown for nostalgia:

70s living room
FourStory editor’s living room, Oklahoma City, circa 1977

Remember the 70s? The prominent colors were Muddy Brown and Mustard Yellow. Everyone who was anyone had plaid drapes and ugly-as-sin doilies on their couches. Buildings were all wires and sticks attached to curves, and glass was stained because god-forbid that natural light impose on your beautifully trashy interior.

Trump Tower
Trump Tower, NYC

Remember the 80s? 1980s Architects got all Fountainhead on us by taking industrial designs like huge flat walls, cylindrical columns and that oh-so-boring concrete color. Glass was huge but used impractically all over a building, turning perfectly nice spaces into greenhouses where huge chunks of wood paneling all over the floors and walls would trap heat. Worse yet, the color fads were Rust Red, Forest Green, every conceivable shade of Orange, pastels (which are gross even to write) and mirrored walls. Good God, mirrored walls.

Remember the 90s? Neon lights with Greens, Reds and Purples lit up the top of structures as “accents.” Stucco on every wall of your strip malls, beige and tan duotones, and open/industrial ceilings as far as the eye could see. A deconstructivist movement, led by good ol’ Frank Gehry and Tom Mayne, wanted to make buildings that looked like they had already been hit by earthquakes, and people loved it somehow. Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava, on the other hand, were more focused on making the sleekest, most burdensome “futuristic" environments possible, with stuff like “pods,” “capsules” and blistering-hot bent steel frames.

Gare do Oriente
Santiago Calatrava, Gare do Oriente, Lisbon, 1998

What’s the rage now, you ask? “New Urbanism" or “Urban Architecture.” What’s the verdict? Well, here the good news: New Urbanism is the last step of a true “modernist” movement to infuse research into the design of a building, and this time it’s a socially-conscious one. Over the last 50 years, architects have used the same method: 1) design a building, 2) observe its construction, 3) reap the benefits. Or fail, but at least the first two steps are the same.

But now even the heavy-hitters in the world of architecture don’t have a choice and need to be socially conscious, and we’re not just talking about Urbanism. The other big movement is “Green/Sustainable Design,” but combined we’ll call them both “Responsible Design.” Which is really just about architects asking questions instead of jumping to conclusions: How can we make this building energy efficient? How will it add to the surrounding community? How will it look amidst the landscape? How will people feel about living or working here? What’s the cheapest, most effective way to develop something amazing? “New Urbanism” (or whatever you want to call it) is all about being infusive, and the best examples always get splattered across the front of architecture mags.

There’s really nothing “new” about “New Urbanism.” Surprise, surprise, unbroken street scenes create a walking community. Lo and behold, taking people into consideration develops useful structures for busy communities. Sticking to your hideous, monotonous, fad-based designs hard-headedly only makes a structure that everyone will hate. Did you really think that you’d get praise for developing something visionary but horrible? Needless to say, your developer will probably hate you.

This is the first step to creating smarter community and urban design that is infusive, architecture that is responsible to its patron developers as well as the people at large.

unsustainable development is cancer
photo: Michelle Kwajafa

Really, there’s no need to be wildly visionary and “break the mold" by building something wretched. Alternatively, it’s stupid to Kinkade-ify your designs by sticking foolishly to an antiquated style that make your residents feel isolated in their mud brown and mustard yellow shanties. People will look at it and think “this is seriously the worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen” and move on. Good design takes all parties into account and is still creative, and that won’t go out of style anytime soon.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


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