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  • Writer's pictureRadomir Kobryn-Coletti


Why are modern buildings so ugly? This is a question all too often posed by the public.

These hideous and depressing creations of the modernist architectural elite can be found in any major city, all across the world.

The skylines of major cities are now becoming indistinguishable from each other. There is no character or charm to these extrusions of glass and reinforced concrete. They simply take up visual space without any regard to the lives and wellbeing of the public, the fabric of communities or the heritage and native traditions of the respective local cultures.

The trend of ugly architecture, isn't simply limited to new cities, or new world countries. Sadly, this disease is spreading to Europe as well.

Take the Tour Montparnasse in Paris. A horror creation of the 60s modernists, completely disrupting and obstructing the skylines and refined streetscapes designed hundreds of years ago by Haussmann. It juts out in stark contrast to it's beautiful surroundings, and does not attempt to blend in with the existing Parisian architectural fabric, known and beloved by millions all-over the world, for hundreds of years.

Tour Montparnasse, Paris
Tour Montparnasse, Paris

Of course, like any modernist building, it is not simply a visual eyesore, but an unsustainable badly thought out build. Lo and behold, in 2005 it was discovered that Tour Montparnasse contained dangerously high levels of asbestos, forcing tenants to flee and creating major costs to control the toxic airborne particles. This is a pattern that repeats all-over the world, modernists demand their buildings be erected in the name of 'progress' and 20-30 years later, they are torn down by the next generation of architects, who proclaim "but that was then, this is now and we'll be building what is new, better and exciting!".

The skyscraper problems in Paris do not seem to be going away. A new 42-story glass skyscraper named Tour Triangle, designed by Herzog & de Meuron will be set to visually pollute the 15th arrondissement. Advocacy organization SOS Paris, which fights against skyscrapers in Paris notes that the tower will require up to four times more steel and concrete than a typical building in the city, and that its irregular shape will require additional energy consumption. Another fact to remember, despite all the propaganda and incessant lies, modernist architecture is NOT sustainable or ecologically beneficial.

Tour Triangle, Paris
Tour Triangle, Paris

Modernists, unable to create anything beautiful see it upon themselves to destroy what is already there, imposing their monstrous works to wreck the traditional and the local, and proclaiming themselves and their peers 'geniuses', 'new thinkers' and hailing their buildings as 'the future'.

An example of how delusional the circle of self congratulatory modernist architects are, we should take this San Francisco Federal Building, which cost US $144 million.

San Francisco Federal Building
San Francisco Federal Building

It was hailed by architectural critics such as John King from the San Francisco Chronicle as "both daunting and dazzling" and won many awards including the building Design Award from the American Institute of Architects in 2008 and in 2012, was named the International Outstanding Building of the Year by the Building Owners and Managers Association.

As is usually the case, whilst the accolades from the architectural elite pile on, the public at large and the workers actually using these modernist buildings grow in their discontent. In the case of the San Francisco Federal Building, it was discovered that not a single café or refectory was situated inside the building for the 2400 employees that worked there. The strange building shape meant that some employees needed umbrellas to keep the sun out of their cubicles, and when opening windows, papers would often fly out. In assessments by the US Department of Energy it was found to have an extremely low rating of thermal comfort, lighting and acoustics and incredibly low user satisfaction, with 497 employee respondees to the Department of Energy survey, placing the Federal Building at the 12th percentile of government buildings.

The truth is that, people hate modernist buildings, but have no voice or power in comparison to the modernist cult of architects and their elitist advocates, the media, academia, government officials and property developers, who benefit immensely from this new economy of knocking down beautiful buildings and replacing them with barbaric low effort, maximum profit boxes. Even skyscrapers in the past were built in an aesthetically pleasing style, with ornament showcasing craftsmanship and the use of the classical language showing respect for the civic values and communities that they were built in.

But the creeping ugliness of modernist architecture is not just relevant to skyscrapers.

This is the Moynihan Train Hall at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, completed January 1, 2021.

They even left out benches for seating! Seems just like any large train station right?

Moynihan Train Hall, Pennsylvania Station
Moynihan Train Hall, Pennsylvania Station

But let's compare it to the previous version of Pennsylvania Station built in 1910.

Old Pennsylvania Station, New York.
Old Pennsylvania Station, New York.
Old Pennsylvania Station, New York.
Old Pennsylvania Station, New York.

An extraordinary feat of architecture. Grand Ionic and Corinthian columns and pilasters, a soaring coffered ceiling based off the Roman baths of Caracalla and giant Diocletian windows. It was the largest indoor space in New York City at the time, one the grandest train stations of the world and hailed as a 'temple to transportation'. The new Pennsylvania station in contrast, shows itself as a banal utilitarian project, of zero noteworthiness.

Is there a reason we can't build beautiful public spaces like the old Pennsylvania Station today? We have more resources, technology, building techniques, materials, software and knowledge than 100 years ago.

Nor is it a matter of cost. Modernist buildings actually have shorter life spans, do not use natural materials (instead rely on steel, reinforced concrete, glass, plastic), often cost billions to bring strange and warped shapes to reality and are not by any means cheaper than traditional or classically inspired buildings.

Take for example this modernist eyesore, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003 which cost $274 million, with the parking garage alone costing US $110 million.

The failures of the concert hall were many and dangerous.

Firstly, the decision to use metal on the façade meant that not only did the neighbouring buildings heat up enormously from the reflected light, but so too the adjacent skywalk with hotspots up to as much as 60 °C (140 °F). There was also a huge increase in risk for traffic accidents with the harsh glare, again caused by the reflections from the outer metal sheets, causing a major hazard for oncoming drivers.

In contrast another recently built US concert hall, The Schermerhorn Symphony Center, in Nashville Tennessee was completed in 2005 and is designed in the Classical tradition. It cost US $123.5 million, which is less than half the amount spent for the modernist Disney venue and provides for a beautiful, relatable and dignified setting of classical music, instead of an overpriced metal mishmash that creates heat spots, intense light reflections and does not create the same ambience of a respectable hall showcasing world class performances.

Needless to say, there is a necessity for a revolution in architecture and conscious public thinking about the buildings we choose to allocate to our civic spaces. It is time to engage the modernists head on in a debate covering all aspects of architecture from beauty and aesthetics to sustainability, cost, building life span, natural vs synthetic materials, local production, craftsmanship, urban planning and occupant satisfaction.

In the coming months I'll be writing more about these differences between Classical, Traditional Vernacular Architecture and the Modernist type, and I hope to learn more myself in this process.

Can we make architecture great again? I certainly hope so.

Jardin du Tuileries

Written by Radomir Kobryn-Coletti

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