Beauty in Architecture

One thing that I’ve long hated about much of the US is how stunningly UGLY it all is. So when this article popped up, it resonated with me. I’ve been an amateur aficionado of architecture for as long as I can remember, and while a (very few) aspects of the “béton brut” school do appeal to me, there is absolutely nothing about the American strip mall or the “modern” or “postmodern” architectural constructions that fill the cities of the US that inspire anything like a sense of beauty, purpose, or even raw humanity about them. Europe has their fair share of ugly cities and towns (perhaps especially just outside of Paris), and there are certainly gems to be found in the US, but in both cases these tend to be exceptions to the rule.

So, let’s talk about examples of architecture, specifically on a community-, town-, or city-wide level (e.g. not just specific buildings or individual isolated instances) that really inspire us, both from a “this is the better end of Americana” and “this might be a worthwhile direction to head” perspective.

“Not Concrete”? And probably “Not Drywall.”

I really like either massive wooden construction (which is less likely going forward - the trees for the giant beams are pretty much not a thing anymore), or stone/mortar construction. Preferably a bit rougher than perfectly smooth.

In terms of useful directions to head, though, I think the style is less important than the suitability to the local environment. You can put up a stick frame, siding, drywall based house anywhere, as long as you have gobs of energy to feed the HVAC. Without that, well, drywall molds in the south.

I’d like to see a return to houses that are appropriate for their sites, with good solar gain in the winter, good shade in the summer, etc. We don’t need full Passivhaus standards, but that general direction would be a very, very good path. I say this having nothing of the sort, though at least our windows point the right direction.

Yeah, that’d be nice. Though most of those building methods are labor intensive, and labor is expensive…

Me, I’ll settle for site appropriate and taking advantage of what resource is there, even if it’s just a good flow through ventilation with the prevailing wind. Or disaster hardened for the local types of calamity.

They are, but operating costs are a lot lower, so…

I do hope the era of 4000 sq ft McMansions is coming to an end. We think our 2000 sq ft is rather excessive most of the time (which, historically, it certainly is).

I’m not horribly opposed to concrete, per se. There are ways of making it work very well for specific use cases. Plaster as a wall covering is a form of concrete technology, and it is easily made locally if you have the right minerals (which are fairly ubiquitous) so it’s an ecological material - that said, to do it well, like anything, takes a high degree of skill (along the lines of the advanced mortars used in later medieval construction) and of course it makes no sense to use it where you don’t have the right materials at hand.

We did, until pandemic isolation. Now the 4th bedroom is the spare office, we have school space in the finished basement…

I’ve seen some stamped and stained concrete that looked really good. Various brick, slate and flagstone sorts of looks. It’s not cheap, but I don’t think it’s more than a good brick or stone vernier; so it could still have the function and strength/cost benefits of concrete without looking like a concrete tip-up industrial building.

Otherwise concrete is rarely the answer, aesthetically speaking. Doesn’t matter how many windows are stuck in it, I still prefer to call ‘Brutalist’ architecture ‘Gulag-ian’ architecture.

Natural materials look best to me. Marble, sandstone, cedar, things that provide a more natural colored, earthy tone to it. The clean lines of certain metal and glass architectures can also look nice, but it’s easy to over do it. One skyscraper looks like the next to me when they’re all just a slight variation on glass-walled-box.

Oh, no disagreement here. And I certainly don’t intend to imply that I think concrete should be the façade!! Heavens no. That said, for a core, for a surfacing material, for correct, properly engineered structural enhancement, for a host of specific, intentional uses, it is both more economical (in both effort and labour and raw materials) and more appropriate (in thermal conductivity or compressive strength or other engineering senses) than most other readily available materials. As a result, it shouldn’t be discarded as an optional component (among many!) of a beautiful, useful, functional, long-lasting building, that’s all I’m saying.

By the way, my view on brutalism (the name of course coming from “béton brut” meaning “raw concrete”, brut = raw) is simply that it is a purely functional approach to things. Whether a brutalist building looks “brutal” in the English sense is absolutely unrelated - not ALL raw concrete structures look ghastly, but the vast majority of them certainly look uninviting!

I find concrete can be made to look at least aesthetically neutral and visually interesting when it is the interior surface of places - some of the more enjoyable metro stations are concrete, but textured or patterned or gridded in novel and interesting ways that make it a play of geometry. It’s an excellent structural dome (when weighted from the outside, as in earthship style construction), and its mass makes it an excellent and dependable foundation material and between-floors noise and fire retardant.

In addition, I don’t think that - at scale, mind you - we’ll be able to have enough wood for construction, heating, and sufficient reforestation of the planet in the short term (a century or thereabouts is “short term” in this particular frame). Certainly individuals in well-located regions of the world can take advantage of wood, but I am far from convinced of the argument that it is a good idea to utilize a lot of it right now, as an alternative to all the other materials we’re using dungloads of.

So… brick and masonry come to mind also. Slow, expensive, difficult, only available in certain areas. Brick in particular requires insane amounts of thermal input. It’s gorgeous, but can we do it at scale? Probably not. Masonry, same. For public buildings, things with shared purpose and general access, yes this sort of construction makes sense. For housing and other needs? Harder to say.

I don’t see a renewable, ubiquitous, and easy-to-work-with material out there for the time when homes must again be build by hand and the existing structures have become utterly uninhabitable. There will still likely be a few billion humans on the planet then, and many of them will be new (statistics suggest!) so they’ll be needing homes… not that we need to solve their problems, but ya know… stuff to think about.

That’s neat! I didn’t know the name meant ‘raw’, I thought it was just function with little aesthetic form and somehow that always meant lots of concrete.

I see insulated concrete forms (ICF) gaining popularity in some places. The structure of concrete with better thermal properties and whatever benefits come from not having to strip forms off the damp concrete. It seems most often clad with stucco, but I imagine just about any preferred vernier or siding could be attached. No idea what the cost/sqft is compared to other building methods.

I’ve looked into a couple alternative techniques that looked interesting for houses at least, but they’ve all got pretty big downsides. Container homes seemed a fad for a while, but the container is pretty much just a steel frame, and the siding has to be insulated and sealed or condensation is a big issue. That reduces the space such that you have to start cutting away the siding and sticking multiple containers together. With the cost of containers these days it doesn’t save any money over standard stick-built, to say nothing of it’s looks.

Earth-bag looks interesting, but massively laborious. Neither of those options scale either. Can work for homes perhaps. Public and industrial buildings not so much.

For long term renewable construction, I can’t really think of much else either. The function and cost of metal-clad pole barns as well as concrete tip-up structures is undeniable (usually industrial buildings, since there is nothing much pretty about either). Otherwise it’s stick-built, or it’s stone or brick with wildly escalating costs for material and labor.

I came to much the same conclusions about containers - they’re just a pain to work with.

My original plan for my office was a shipping container, and after working out just how annoying they are to make year-round habitable (closed cell foam on the inside, framing inside that, can’t cut windows without a huge pain, etc), I just ended up with a wood framed shed instead. I’ve got a shipping container for storage, but it’s not insulated or anything, so there aren’t really any issues with condensation. I don’t heat it in the winter.

I’ve seen some really nice architecture done with shipping containers, but it’s… an acquired taste.

(Green Jeans in Albuquerque, if that link expires, sorry for the FB, it was the best image I could find)

They’re just really hyper-optimized to be shipping containers - and everything else falls by the wayside there.

Labor intensive with local materials will probably be a thing again at some point, though.