This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Why buildings become ugly


As a Graphic Designer, and frustrated architect, I understand why buildings become ugly. I understand that they all start out on a drawing board, with great expectations, and then things start to go wrong. It happens with all designs, but buildings are especially prone to this.

I spend a lot of time looking at buildings. And I look at them with the eyes of a designer. When I see a brand new building, I know that I'll be seeing it at its best for the last time. Because things happen.

No, it's not a conspiracy, man. No one stands around, laughing manically, and saying "wait until I ruin this design!" It's most often best intentions, and sometimes just human error, and of course, budget.

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the little models of buildings. And I'm also fascinated by artist's renderings. These show the building as it appeared in the mind of the designer. Everything is bright and shiny clean, there is usually a lot of landscaping, and nicely-dressed people walking around. If there are cars, they are there to help show off the design.

Of course, a model, or a drawing, can have anything. There's no budget restraint on imagination! In the real world, where the building actually has to exist, it costs money. Real money. And the money that is dedicated to it has to be prioritized - the building has to not fall down, for example. And if the money runs out before the final details are added, well, that's how it goes.

And there's always something wrong with a building. When I visit buildings with my History Adventuring friends, I'm always looking for what's right. Many people will point out what's wrong. And then suddenly a LOT of things become visible. Maybe it was sloppy work when the building was originally built, maybe something sloppy was added on. As a designer, I tend to be one of those "unreasonable, egotistical people" who doesn't want to just have everyone be happy in a meeting. Designers fight for design, and we most often lose. There are many architects who won't go see a building that they have designed, it's just too sad.

Of course, architects make mistakes. They forget to design in enough storage, enough parking. And buildings have to adapt. My local Starbucks was designed without any storage space, so stuff is just piled up in the corner, in plain sight. And if you've ever gone somewhere where the cars just seem to be scattered all over the place, or people are pushing strollers behind cars that are backing up, the designers failed on that function of design, and that is that people (especially in Phoenix) use cars, and that they need to get their bodies from those cars into those buildings.

Up until very recently, Phoenix and Los Angeles were famous for their sloppy enforcement of any kind of building code. I call it the "good old boys network", where if someone knew someone, they could get just about anything approved. And substandard work was done on everything from buildings to freeways. As a designer, this kinda scares me, but I understand that everyone "just wants to get along", and "not make waves". But that's where it starts.

Another factor in making buildings ugly is that tastes change. In the middle of the 20th Century, old-fashioned brick was an embarrassment, and stucco was used to "clean up" the old look. You can see it all over Phoenix, and Los Angeles. I'm sure they meant well, but removing stucco from brick has now become a big business.

And that's why I say over and over "I'm sure they meant well". Sometimes I'll say, "They made a mistake". And that's because buildings are made, and used, by human beings, and we do the best we can. So the next time you walk up to an ugly building, you can say "They meant well", and be forgiving, but really, I'm hoping that someone will say "Hey, this could be a beautiful building!"

And beautiful buildings make for beautiful cities.

By the way, if you've been in downtown Phoenix in the past thirty years, and you don't recognize the photo at the top of this post, do a Google Street view of the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and Van Buren. I'm sure they meant well.


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