New architecture is almost universally ugly.
What can we do about it?

The ugliness of the built environment is one of modern life’s most damning features. By creating places lacking local character, detail, and charm, this pervasive unsightliness brings quiet and often unconscious misery to millions of people.

There has been little resistance so far to this growing uglification, even in cities that feature a significant stock of quality architecture; albeit most of it built a century or more ago. In and around east Austin, where I live, new development has all the characteristics of a modern boomtown focused solely on short term profit at the expense of creating places worth caring about.

 Old houses
New houses

Up until the second half of the 20th century, in its eastern neighborhoods Austin built a sizeable stock of quality houses that have lasted and aged well. For decades, their owners have cared for these homes because they possess a local character that belongs here, not in Singapore or Dubai or anywhere else.

None of this can be said for the neighborhood’s newer houses, assemblages of factory-built components jarringly at odds with the local vernacular. House by house, these dwellings are gradually turning the neighborhood into a jarring potpourri of awkward shapes and cartoonish boxes whose facades warp and stain as they age swiftly and ungraciously.

Old commercial buildings New commercial buildings

And so it goes with downtown Austin’s commercial buildings. The historic 6th Street (left column above) is a gorgeous strip of arched windows, textured limestone brickwork, and detailed cornices, proudly bearing their original owners’ names. Meanwhile, modern Austin steams ahead nearby, reforging its downtown as a collection of generic high rises that could be any modern city saddled with the same careless development culture.

Most people I know despise these modern buildings; a minority likes them. But this talk of opinions raises an important question: What do people want? Modern architecture has clearly been met with at best a mixed reception, but what proportion of people like or dislike it? What kinds of buildings do people want? Incredibly, there has been no serious effort to answer these questions.

I’ve found just one study (let me know if you’ve found others) looking at what kinds of development the public wants. Its conclusions are remarkable. In its 2015 Home Types Survey, the British organization Create Streets showed photos of 5 housing designs (a type of study known as a “visual preference survey”) to 1,000 adults across Britain and asked if they supported or opposed each kind.

Let’s look at the findings.

In principle, the report found, most people supported development near where they live. 64% of respondents were in support, 14% were in opposition, and 21% were neutral.

The visual preference survey revealed that design dramatically influenced support (73% vs 23%) for any given development. The more conventional designs attracted the most support. Type C, the strongest traditional design, was most preferred, although the more modernist types A and D still attracted significant support.

Note, however, the limited number and types (for instance, few traditional designs, no large apartment buildings or skyscrapers) of design options presented to those surveyed. Future surveys could be more useful by increasing the number of designs shown.

Those who tended to support development (“Q1 supporters”) showed a greater preference for more modernist designs than development opponents, although the supporters still most strongly liked the traditional Type C.

Those who generally oppose (“Q1 Opponents”) development showed an even stronger support for traditional design and more disdain for less conventional styles. For this group, depending on design opposition ranged from 34% to 81% and support from 15% to 51%.

Create Streets’s survey shows that design can considerably influence support for different kinds of developments. In general, the public most supports buildings of conventional and traditional designs, a polar opposite to the taste for modernist design firmly embedded in the architecture profession.

Cities governments shouldn’t just process building applications. They have an obligation to find out what the public wants, a duty that is currently being neglected, and to ensure new developments reflect these preferences. Tools like the visual preference survey could help steer cities away from unpopular buildings to architecture that harmonizes with its surroundings and which the public loves.

There’s hope, even in Austin. The above building dates from 2015 and sits blocks away from historic 6th Street. And while the building’s a far cry from 6th Street’s visual splendor, its design and materials allow it, to some degree, to sit peacefully among the city’s traditional architecture. It’s a tentative step in the right direction and a sign of what would be possible if citizens were asked “What do you like?”

Alas, if only it were as easy as sending out pollsters to survey the public. From government bureaucracies to developers, a mind-bogglingly powerful cabal of interests has formed around the swift production (and demolition) of today’s stucco box homes and glass-clad skyscrapers. We are all losers. Only when the public wakes up and organizes will change come.