“Bad architecture”… I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it…

“Bad architecture” is a difficult thing to quantify. There are almost never right or wrong answers to all problems. People have opinions a mile long when it comes to design aesthetics and what makes a building good or bad. If you ask some one specifically what bad architecture looks like, most will give vague notions of examples or recent trends. More often than not, though, those questions are answered with the same, age-old adage: I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion put on by the Denver Architectural Foundation titled “Re: Denver”. The discussion focused primarily on what exactly is “bad architecture” and what are some things that create vibrant and successful architecture.

When giving examples of poor architecture, or “fugly” buildings as some called them, the most common themes within the examples were ones that used tacky materials and those that barely acknowledged the presence of any sort of context. They are wholly insular and turn their backs to their neighbors. The most tangible example was the very common (at least in Denver) three-story townhome that is built with it’s side to the street, completely covers the lot it’s on, and has all of it’s front doors away from the public realm.

How all of these townhomes and large-scale multi-family developments will be judged over time is difficult to say. While density itself is not a bad thing at all, the manner in which it is achieved is most likely leaving something to be desired. Is it possible that some of these buildings will grow to be revered? Will people say to each other in fifty years “I’m really looking for something with a classic fiber cement panel look to it… That’s just such a timeless style”? You could probably guess what my answer would be.

The one positive thing I will say about these developments: they are adding layers to the city fabric. The point was made by one of the panelists, Jeff Sheppard, that some of the most vibrant cities and communities are those that have a number of layers to them, which helps give them a deep sense of character. This is achieved through a variety of people, businesses, amenities, and activated streets. These neighborhoods and areas are not built all at one time by a mega-developer, but instead are cultivated over time as pieces get added to the patchwork quilt of a city context.

Let’s be honest, some of these buildings are just awful. There is no getting around that and we will all have to live with the choices that some people made for our neighborhoods and cities. However, the fact that they are helping to add a potential layer to the their overall context through their users is a good thing. Although the buildings themselves might be total eyesores in some cases, they do help to enliven an area. That, at least, is contributing somewhat to the idea of a layered city and increasing its depth of character.

Hopefully our generation won’t be known as the ones that tried to create density without taking the time to do it right. Hopefully we won’t be the ones that create all of these buildings that are demolished in a few decades because they weren’t built to last and people just cannot stand to look at them anymore. We have the opportunity to be the ones that help to reinvigorate urban cores in a sustainable and community-centric manner.

With any luck, we will be known for putting people first through smart urban development and not as the generation who went on a shopping spree at the “mediocre building materials grab bin”.

Fingers crossed.

2 thoughts on ““Bad architecture”… I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it…

  1. Did you see the Westword article? Not being an architect, I didn’t realize some of the mediocre buildings in Denver were “bad” architecture – they just struck me as plain. Can purely “functional” buildings be “good” architecture? Something to discuss over beers…

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