Too many new buildings today are simply ugly behemoths. They have little to add to our urban street scenes, and many look alike from city to city, with the same tired shapes, confused compositions, and bland materials. They give modern a bad name and only help galvanize public backlash – often with good reason.
We could debate the many scapegoats for ugliness: building codes, greed, politics, talent, time, but most of these building designers have simply forgotten the basics. Regardless of architectural style, all design, at its basic core, is the artful control of three elements: size, proportion, and the organization of parts (windows, cornices, columns, etc. for buildings).
Size, referred to as “scale” by architects, can be anything from how big the button is on your phone, to the size of your living room window, to the huge arched entryway of a cathedral. The size of things can make them feel important, cheap, chic, cute, or any number of connotations. Large columns may signify strength and the heaviness of whatever they hold up, a big doorway may be wide enough to allow multiple people through at the same time, thereby signifying the status or importance of a municipal building.
Proportion in design refers to dimensions. For example, if a window is two feet wide and eight feet tall, it may accentuate the vertical look of a building making it look taller than it is in reality. If a building is composed of stones that are five feet wide and one foot tall, they may accentuate the horizontal lines of a building making it appear shorter than it is in reality. Each building part (window, stone, door, etc.) has a proportion, and those parts may be grouped to alter building proportions. For example, six square windows aligned vertically.
Organization in design refers to the arrangement of all parts. In buildings this includes windows, cornices, columns, doors, etc. A building may have four rows of windows and a door in the corner, or six columns and a door in the middle. Windows and doors may line up in a row, or they may appear to be randomly placed.
When we put size, proportion, and organization together to compose a design, each one affects the other. Like the length of your arm, that comes to your hand and ends with small fingers, it all has to work together. Herein lies the art of composing design. We find comfort and pleasure in arrangements that have balance between horizontal and vertical proportions, parts that appear to line up with other parts, and parts that may repeat in sequence like a window placed every eight feet. We may find it jarring to have a twelve-story building next to a two-story building – proportionally they appear incongruous.
There are many other things that contribute to the visual look and feel of buildings: materials, textures, colors, symbols, and more. Good architecture strives not only to make a building function and look appealing, but also to convey meaning and purpose through ideas, history, technology, or any number of things that contribute to the identity of a place and well being of its people. However, too many building designers are failing to resolve the visually appealing basics of size, proportion, and organization. Why?
Building owners and developers, municipal review boards, and architects themselves seem to have forgotten (or never fully understood) the above basics. Ugly buildings are blemishes in our communities. Occasionally the public gets irate about a big building, but we should all get as irate about the ugly buildings.
At the end of the day, architecture is about people. Architects need to think about how the average person moves about their day, taking unconscious cues from the buildings around them. We spend most of our time in buildings; some make us happy, some challenge our conventions, a few make us sick, many are boring, and some are just plain ugly.
We must not forget that each building contributes to the character and identify of a place. The most important part of a building is the first ten vertical feet. This is the portion that makes the street scene where life happens. People rarely look up at buildings; we’re accustomed to paying attention to what’s directly in front of us, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of the building.
Good buildings start with good planning, they pay attention to how people use them, and they balance size, proportion, and visual organization. Good architecture masters these aspects, and goes further to convey meaning and purpose through ideas, history, and technology that contributes to the identity of our communities. We don’t have to settle for ugly buildings; we can demand better.