If ugliness is better for our cities than beauty; if dirtiness is better than cleanliness; and if messiness makes for better, more vibrant, and livelier spaces than manicured perfection, how can we build that? Or at least, build for it?
This is one of many questions that came out of a debate that happened at the Lab Sunday afternoon. It came up shortly before the debate was cut off due to time constraints. But in my mind it is a question so critical in architecture and city development today—albeit one of the most complex and difficult questions—that I simply couldn’t let the conversation stop there.
The question came about after several hours of discussion around the idea of defining beauty or ugliness itself. The debate at hand at the Lab that day was all about aesthetics: when it comes to the city, what is beauty? Who gets to decide that? And what are the consequences of that decision when it’s applied to the urban fabric?
I needn’t summarize the entire debate to tell you that there was no consensus as to what makes something beautiful (or not) in the city—nor did anyone expect to find it. However, one of the panelists, Jürgen Krusche from the Institute for Contemporary Art Research, at the Zurich University of the Arts, brought to the table the argument that ugliness—a word he used to describe the sort of chaotic, patchwork wildness or messiness that a city garners when it is left to fall apart slightly—is what enables vibrancy to happen. What’s more, he argued that that vibrancy is more important to quality of life than “beauty,” which is often defined by cleanliness and order.
“Decay,” he said, “leaves gaps that allow for life to spread” and for people to self-build the urban fabric in accordance with their own dreams. That gives us a connection to our city, which makes us feel comfortable in it. But it also makes a city ugly, in the traditional city planner’s sense of the word, because it ultimately results in an uncontrolled aesthetic, which many associate with lack of safety and security.
Krusche made this same case in his now famous article, “Berlin ist hässlich—und das ist gut so!” (“Berlin is ugly—and it’s good that way!”), arguing that this is the phenomenon that helps make Berlin such an attractive city, even though it doesn’t live up to the usual standards of most cities that are highly ranked for quality of life.
Anyone who has been to Berlin knows very well that it is not, in the traditional sense of the word, a beautiful place. It is not only a city of mismatched architecture, much of which comes from what I would personally go so far as to call some of architectural history’s most depressing periods, but also one whose political and economic history has resulted in a much slower investment or re-investment process than in other places. That is a part of what has enabled Berlin’s seemingly lawless and DIY aesthetic—from its world-famous graffiti culture, to its endless supply of seemingly ownerless plastic chairs in random public spaces, to its occupied abandoned buildings and overgrown lots—to proliferate until now. It may not be “beautiful,” but it sure is lived in.
It’s not only Krusche that argues for this state of things in cities. When New York Lab Team member Charles Montgomery and environmental psychologist Colin Ellard gathered data about people’s emotional and physiological reactions to different forms of streetscape and urban design during their co-designed “Testing, Testing!” experiment, one of their surprising findings reflected, to a certain extent, the case for messiness.
They found that people actually felt happier and more aroused (the technical term environmental psychologists use to describe a general feeling of activation, excitement, and engagement) standing in front of an older, more crowded, messier streetscape than they did in front of the newer, simple, clean, blank façade of Whole Foods on Houston Street. What’s more, as Ellard emphasized to me recently when I called him to rehash my understanding of the experiment, the contrast was even stronger in visitors to the neighborhood and city than it was with local residents. This could suggest that the positive effect of a lived-in, messy, lively aesthetic goes even beyond the feeling of personal or community ownership that Krusche points to.
It’s clear that the defense of ugliness, or messiness, is not one that all would agree on. But if we are to concede, for a moment, that there is validity to this argument, the question then comes to the one I posed at the beginning of this post. How do we deal with this when building our cities? Or is it even possible to reconcile the necessity of new development and redevelopment with the need to allow for the gaps and decay that Krutsche argues enable ownership and liveliness to proliferate?
Is this something that can only come with time and disintegration, or is there a way to apply this to new development? If not, how long do we leave that messiness once it’s there? Can you legitimately ask a city to leave its empty spaces empty and not make them more “beautiful” when those spaces have an economic value and the city needs money? Is liveliness worth enough to warrant that? And if we do have to fill those gaps, can you ask a developer to fill them with new messiness, or something that encourages it? Is that even possible?
Can redevelopment and renewal happen when necessary without “cleaning up”?
Please start or join the debate in the comment section below.
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Photos: by Charles Montgomery