The Case of Ugly Architecture

Are some buildings too ugly to save? The New York Times asked in last Sunday’s paper, and spurred discussions throughout the architecture, buildings, preservation and sustainability crowds. The PreservationNation blog has a post on the issue; conversations are all over the internet. Therefore, you may be poised and ready to weigh in on this discussion; but, it is worthy of conversation as modern architecture is questioned on its historic significance and demolition of any building is considered.

Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY. Click for source.

The building that is stirring the debate this time is the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY, designed by well known architect Paul Rudolph in 1967 in the Brutalist architectural style. In addition to many perceived flaws, the building was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and has since been vacant. Orange County officials want to demolish the building and construct a new office complex. Interestingly, the cost of demolition and replacement far exceeds that of rehabilitation. More often, you hear about buildings being demolished because the proposal for rehabilitation exceeds new construction. (You may have your own opinions on the truth of such statements.)

When we’re talking demolition v. rehabilitation, there are so many factors at play, which is evident by the grassroots group Save the Orange County Government Center (SOCGC). This group is in favor of saving the building for reasons of architectural significance, financial and historic preservation. If you want to talk about an old building (i.e. not historic, but simply one that is already built), then sustainability and use of resources comes to the table. In this case, all factors collide.

The Orange County Government Center is now on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2012.

The Orange County Government Center is determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (i.e. historically significant) by the NY State Historic Preservation Officer. See additional (and better) photos via Arch Daily and ZeoSpot. See more of Paul Rudolph’s buildings in this NYTimes slideshow. Lloyd Alter, of TreeHugger.com, writes about the Orange County Government Center in addition to many articles on Paul Rudolph buildings, which are being demolished at an alarming rate. Clearly, this is not a new issue.

Yet, this issue is larger than the preservation and rehabilitation of a single, significant building, regardless of the architect.

As I learned from Professor Gary Stanton at Mary Washington, and who I love to quote, “Your personal taste in buildings is not an appropriate evaluation for buildings of the past.” In other words, “ugly” should never enter the conversation. Doing so is a step back (by a few decades!). If the building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, then it is historic and significant, regardless of how you feel about its appearance. It is entirely inappropriate to bring “ugly” into the discussion about significant architecture; it belittles historic preservation and adds to the false belief that preservationists only want to save the “pretty” buildings, thereby making everything look perfect. That is incorrect.

However, let’s be clear: can you talk about ugly and big box stores? Sure. Go ahead. That subject will come up again in our lifetimes. But you cannot compare an architect designed Brutalist building to a generic box of a building. Not every building – no matter the architectural style – is historic. Perhaps it is better to say that in terms of historic preservation, you cannot compare historic buildings to old (or not old!) buildings.

I’ll admit; I am not fond of Brutalist architecture. But my opinion does not matter in the grand scheme of our architectural history. I can appreciate the building for its architecture. I compare it to what I learned in film studies in college: a movie can be good because of its cinematography, its writing, its directing, etc., but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Or I can like a movie that isn’t considered good. You have to understand the difference. In the same line of thinking, there are buildings I like that are no historically significant, and there are historically significant buildings that I do not like. Does that make sense?

As many have said, society once despised the Queen Annes and Shingle styles of the Victorian Era, or the streamlined Art Deco of the 1930s. Architecture styles exist because society wants to attempt new design and to change its surroundings. If we collectively wiped out entire styles because we were tired of them, then the world would continuously look exactly the same. And where would be now? We’d all be living in McMansions or high rise towers.

The morale of the story?  Please do not use “ugly” in your vocabulary when you are discussing historically significant buildings. It has no place. Keep your personal opinions to yourself, which should not affect a building’s determination of significance.