Why are many of our buildings ugly when simple beauty is easily achieved? In the words of my Harvard GSD architecture professor Ed Baum “Good proportions are free.”
There is a compulsion suspended like a toxic vapor through the American zeitgeist to seek, propagate and live easily with that which lacks proportion, coordinated color and pleasing composition. Our built environment trends toward collisions of the ill-formed: trainwrecks, in common parlance. This is not a newsflash. Urban physical disorder has been noted by our finest writers of the past century. Steinbeck complained in Travels With Charley - 1962. Robert Venturi celebrated with irony in Learning From Las Vegas - 1972. We are surrounded by it in 2015.
Every city in the United States is blighted by a cancerous skein of ugly streets, bleak vistas, esthetically vacant mini malls, endless commercial strips stretch for hundreds of miles, linking cities with colossal polypeptides of architectural disturbance, 100,000 base pairs comprising fast food joints, each vying to be the Taj Mahal of its block, gas stations, tire stores, payday loan sharks, liquor stores, car lots united by a glowing tissue of jetsam, a chaos of neon and plastic backlit signage. Drivers crawl along a molecule of a madness born of fear.
We are comfortable with ugliness. Building designers working for fast food and auto supply franchise owners propose these structures, planners approve or ignore them, contractors build as instructed and we all tolerate them, comforted by this swamp of banality defining us, from the scenic fringes of the heartland in Bozeman nestled in the high lonesome to vibrant Nashville, from Boston to Washington down to Miami absorbing weird comfort from fingernails scratching down the suburban blackboard. Open your eyes on commercial boulevards across America and see the garbage.
I find a parking place near the Vanderbilt campus in my adopted city of Nashville, a part of town with a long history of smart, well educated, sensitive people, a part of town containing many hospitals, health care clinics and mid- size hotels. Student dormitories reminiscent of Bulgarian worker housing face West End avenue. I sit for a few moments in my car, two blocks away, looking out upon urban formal chaos. The willfully, comfortably hideous layers of ugly buildings poison my cone of vision. Half-baked, uninspired buildings collide with one another in sour formlessness. This collision of built form is necrosis. How could this happen among fine folks? Why did it happen? Nashville is a friendly, comfortable, amenable city with an intelligent, hard-working population. This lack of esthetic honesty typifies large zones of each American city.
Looking closely at a single building, one sees that this single structure is ordinary and uninspired in all aspects of causation. A common excuse among architects, when pressed to answer for uninspired form, reply that their design was driven by economics ( so were countless beautiful buildings lining the shores and hillsides of the Mediterranean). When one includes the nearest hulking neighbors of this ugly building in the line of sight, several of these fear-riddled piles combine causing a synergy of negativity the “ Additive Negative” - two wrongs combine to create a situation geometrically more dissolute than the effect of both wrongs simply added together. A single airliner flight control component fails - perhaps the aircraft remains airworthy, a second failure brings catastrophe. So it is with a cityscape. Isolated, uninspired buildings randomly scattered throughout the urban-suburban fabric and there is little harm or foul, when added together there is permanent visual turmoil, fear-generated and fear-reinforced piles, negatives have been added, darkness settles among us. Let’s drink to this or not, alcohol exacerbates. the sensitive are driven to madness.
More than half of all Americans are hard-wired for ugliness, in possession of a deep, active fear of beauty resulting from color harmony, resolved proportion, graceful line or sublime use of material. Like interesting and dangerous animals -the esthetically pleasing is best experienced in the safe confines of an art zoo (museum). Teams of educated, experienced, licensed professional building designers, armed with time-honored theory still create many ugly buildings. If a design survives its architects in possession of esthetic quality, it will suffer when placed into its urban context, most often ignoring neighboring buildings thus poisoned by them. Every building in American cities is reviewed and approved by city planners yet the tortured logic of the aimless collage prevails. This new building is anchored in a part of town with its own kind creating an esthetic dead zone. All is well - Protestants rule, ugly prevails. We are comfortable and safe.
Ninety eight percent of new buildings constructed in the United States have no architect involved. Our professionals, trained to deliver visual coherence are not even on the case. So what? They have filled our cities with banality with arguments of an optimistic Modernism, Postmodernism or Greenism, styles easily subverted, denatured and derailed. From the top of our form-giving administrative and professional hierarchy down, politicians and urban designers charged with envisioning entire cities, planners, landscape architects, architects and contractors, the cohort charged with delivering our built environment to the citizens who finance and approve it, live and work in it - all is as it should be. We are in stasis We are surrounded by the manifest response to a powerful fear instilled by our ancestors, a fear overriding our innate mammalian attraction to beauty. We tolerate an avalanche of the ordinary, we seek it.
Note: the following thesis falls into the logical category of “Russell’s Teapot” wherein Bertrand Russell asserts that there is a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars and it is up to you to disprove it. If I were forty years younger with a degree in bioscience, a fume hood, an electrophoresis device, a centrifuge, I would experiment. This must be left to others.
North America was settled by Europeans fleeing religious oppression. As the 16th century unfolded, the Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther in 1517 became as violently restrictive as the Roman Catholicism it replaced “Not only were Papists persecuted but Protestant founders in England, Switzerland, the German region, Scandinavia and the Netherlands prosecuted all secondary Protestant sects as infidels.” - Hughes
“Queen Elizabeth is on record for the burning at the stake of two Anabaptists in 1575...Henry VIII had a score of them burned on one day in 1535.-Durant
“There were 800 public executions for heresy per year during the last half of the 16th century and punishment often included disembowelling, drowning, beheading and burning. It was forbidden to keep religious images even in private houses, under pain of severe punishment”-Hughes
“...He brought about the entire suppression of the mass at Augsburg. At his ( Bucer’s) instigation, many fine paintings, monuments and ancient works of art in churches were wantonly torn, broken and smashed. Whoever refused to submit and attend protestant worship was obliged to quit the city.” - Grisar.
“In 1529 the council of Strassburg ordered the breaking to pieces of all remaining altars, images and crosses and several churches and convents were destroyed. In Scotland John Knox passed legislation in which it was forbidden to say mass or be present at mass with punishment being loss of all goods, flogging and banishment and for repeated offense-death.” - Hughes
Many American pioneers at Jamestown, Plymouth, the Chesapeake, the Hudson River Valley and other settlements throughout the Eastern seaboard, emigrated from a violent cauldron of religious intolerance. All protestants share ancestral roots in 16th century public spectacles of torture of Bishops, priests, monks and Protestant outliers. Destruction of religious icons: paintings, sculpture, stained glass and the churches and monasteries containing them was the order of the day.
During the 16th century thousands of citizens of England, The Netherlands, Germanic lands, Scandinavia and Switzerland who emigrated to the new world watched in horror the agonizing spectacle of men and women tortured to death in public for their religious belief. The genes of these traumatized European ancestors mutated at that time from an innate mammalian positive esthetic response into a fear of harmonious color and good proportion. We suffer from Suppressed Esthetic Response ( S. E. R.) We carry a base pair sequence now in a gene that ensures S.E.R. We now experience a deep-seated, biochemical resistance, encoded during the Reformation in our genome by the effect of severe nervous alarm. This rearranged code now protects us from life-threatening expressions of beauty, from dangerous sublimity and bliss. Many of our ancestors began their journey on this continent afraid of the beautiful and we remain hardwired for banality.
Mammals possess neurons that perceive, analyze, judge and act upon esthetically filtered visual information. An individual discerns healthy, fully-fleshed, strong, capable organisms from those that are unhealthy, emaciated and weak, incapable of defense or likely to pass viable genes to offspring i.e. out of proportion. When a creature is in proportion it receives respect from the observer. Quality and fitness have been perceived. The dreaded B-word - beauty has registered. Our capacity for esthetic discretion in works of architecture and art in our everyday environment has been switched off in the genetic code of Protestants descended from Europeans of the 16th century. This includes a large percentage of contemporary Americans. To sense beauty is to be human - to deny beauty is to be Euro- American.
Architects, our sanctioned saviors from perversions of built form, have been marginalized. Their respect in the community of built-form providers has dwindled over the century from a time when there were such persons as “Master Builders”. Architects have become obsessed with awarding one another for having swallowed sustainability Kool Aid. If a building is environmentally sensible and it satisfies an often esthetically challenged owner, the architect considers his or her work complete. Architecture, our culture’s only professional locus of hope for a delightful urban environment has become self-referential. Our finest graduate schools of urban design, landscape design and architecture throughout the Ivy League (source of all design school marching orders) have become high strung cults (see: “8 signs your child is in a cult”) bound by obscure jargon, dominated by a cloistered, priesthood disdaining the grubby, local, contentious, real-world of building delivery, herding their privileged flock of the children of the global one percent, stroking and abusing them under the archaic and arcane tutelage of grand old men and women who were bloviating, ill-tempered gasbags 35 years ago and remain such. Need an architect? they toil on the sidelines with buggy whip makers next to the disco balls. We are on our own.
A traumatic experience 450 years ago affects our population. The effect is achieved by the same mechanics of evolution that increased fur density on mammals forced to endure frigid climates. The innate esthetic sensibility of land animals was locked into our genome 250 million years ago. Soon after crawling from Pre-Cambrian waters to explode into countless species, among them were rat-like precursors of our lineage. A bio-mechanism has clouded a very long held esthetic sensibility with fear. Was this gene sequence permanently switched off? Can we reactivate it?
The idea that a population can inherit physical change or behavior from the real-time life experience of recent ancestors has been a bugaboo of evolutionary thinkers since Darwin dismissed Lamarck’s notion that giraffes affected the length of the neck of their immediate offspring by stretching to reach the high leaves. This notion is called “Inheritance of acquired characters” Darwin’s assertion was that a character such as a long neck is the result of a gradual process playing out over millions of years of competition for survival during which giraffes with longer necks would achieve greater success than relatives with a shorter neck due to their ability to reach a food source, the higher leaves. Darwin’s natural selection is a long, slow, gradual unfolding of fitness. For Lamarck the giraffe lineage would see results of a stretching effort in its offspring - for Darwin the results may not be seen for an epoch. Natural selection must play out, external forces of evolution will act upon every single component and behavior of every organism at all times, gradually, slowly and most of all, uniformly, over the fullness of geologic time: tens or hundreds of millions of years. Larmarck = immediate results, Darwin = results in due time - a very long time in the terms of a single human life, spans of incomprehensible time.
According to renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, three key branches of Darwinism have been marginalized by forty years of research in several biosciences, primarily genetics, embryology, biophysics and paleontology. Darwin’s three theoretical branches beyond the main trunk, that organisms evolve at all, are as follows: 1. Species evolve gradually and continuously in very small increments over the wide expanse of an epoch(s) Any change whatsoever will be insensible in a dozen or even a thousand human lifetimes. 2. Species evolve due to natural selection ( survival of the fittest and weirdest) caused by forces external to the individual. These external forces of causation act upon mutations manifest in individual organisms. These external forces of selection are: A. competition within species for sexual access B. adjusting ( or not ) to climate C. competition with other organisms in its ecosystem for food and dominance. 3. The primary taxonomic level in a hierarchy of causation for plant and animal evolution is the individual organism, not down a level to the gene (Dawkins) or up a taxonomic level, or three, to the species, clade or the phylum (Gould).
Newsflash: (Shhhhh - don’t tell Creationists) Darwin has been denied, demoted, contradicted: 1. Evolution is characterized by punctuated equilibrium, short periods of speciation ( great change) followed by eons of stasis. Evidence described in hundreds of published scientific experiments and exploration during past 50 years. There do exist species that evolve gradually, but most, as seen in the 350 million year fossil record, do not. 2. It has been proven by genetic research of the past thirty years that the bulk of our genome has been chemically locked into its chromosomal place for many millions of years. Humans share genetic sequences for metabolism and organ development with many chordates, vertebrates, mammals and especially primates. Very little of our genome is available for Darwin’s version of natural selection. The majority of genetic change is internally driven by genetic and physical constraint, not driven by forces external to the individual, as Darwin asserted. 3. The individual is not the primary causal level, in the Linnaean taxonomy, for natural selection. Gould and others assert that the key entity in the evolutionary drama is the species not the individual. Entire species survive and diversify or become extinct in response to rare catastrophic forces of climate change, bolide ( comet, meteor, asteroid) impact and or plate tectonic effects on ocean currents, weather patterns and vegetation growth as continents shift.
Lamarck, renowned in his day but discredited for the past 150 years, the butt of every biology text explaining evolution in our lifetime, is back. Recent studies have shown that electrical impulses from neurons can affect the sequence of base pairs in DNA. If a traumatic emotion can send an electrical charge to an orbiting electron on the carbon atom of a thymine molecule on a DNA strand tucked into gene 123-XYZ on the twelfth chromosome in a gamete ( ovum or sperm), it can be inherited.
Every mutation has an origin - a first move proving beneficial to an individual, population or species or not. This mutation becomes preserved and used or is proven ineffective and is selected against or ignored ( see: nipples on men). As noted, many of our northern European ancestors observed or directly suffered public torture of religious heretics for over a century, this population carried, within its biochemical architecture a fear of attracting attention to its religious beliefs, avoiding expressions of support for soul-stirring architecture, sculpture and painting. Individuals so stirred were disembowelled and burned in front of their eyes. The agonies of dissent were fused into the genetic chemistry of the audience. Electrical signals coursed violently through nerve networks, all cells were affected including gametes, the rest is locked firmly into our history, registered by the bookkeeper of natural selection, the gene. Genes keep the books while natural selection acts upon individual organisms, species and clades.
Organisms comprise a hierarchy of causal realms of evolution from sub-atomic particles subject to laws of quantum mechanics to atoms and molecules behaving under laws of physics and chemistry discerned in the 18th and 19th century, DNA and chromosomes cause effects noted in the 19th century and verified in detail through the 20th and 21st centuries. Darwin asserted the individual as the taxonomic star actor at the causal center. Richard Dawkins asserts the gene as the major player - see: The Selfish Gene-1975, Gould asserts that the species or clade ( 10,000 species of birds in the clade of birds, 5,416 species in the clade of mammals) is the primary locus of evolution. btw- homo sapiens exist in a clade of one.
Our ancestors, a sub population from a corner of the Eurasian continent, developed a trait that allowed it to survive barbarous times in the old world: aversion to esthetics and and along with it, an associated trait of religious tolerance. It is unfortunate that the tolerance feature appears to have over-ridden our capacity for esthetic discernment.
The United States contains millions of descendants of this once small, harassed population carrying a silenced base pair sequence born of trauma. How might Americans discover ways to re-activate our collective esthetic sense now that the danger has passed? How might we swerve the tone of our zeitgeist toward delight? It would be an interesting avenue of research to explore ways in which the damping of our esthetic sensibility may have also reduced our capacity for any sort of common happiness. Americans behave as if repelled by bliss, resistant even to ordinary cheerfulness not induced by weird entertainment, alcohol, tobacco, firearms, weed, crank or pills. We appear to be blind to the reigning lack of proportion in our chubby population, including our ill-nourished children. If we can engineer our genome to control heritable disease, perhaps we can do some genetic research that might encourage a more delightful cityscape. We must see in order to act.
January 3, 2015