Berlin Lab

Toward an Uglier Architecture: Can We Keep Building and Keep the Mess?

“Messy” streetscapes like this one put people at ease.

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.

Big-box facades, like this one in New York, prove to be unappealing to many.

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.

. . .

Photos: by Charles Montgomery

  • atimoshenko

    Gaps are indeed necessary for ‘vibrancy’, but decay is not necessary to fill in the gaps. The problem with modernist urbanism is that it wanted to design everything down to the last detail. The results were often sterile and/or related poorly to the human scale, as it is very difficult to get both the big picture and the details right (something that is both broad and deep in an ocean, and human brains don’t grasp such things well).

    Vibrancy can also be either good or bad. The worst of slums can be seen as vibrant from some perspective, but it is a vibrancy of desperation rather than a vibrancy of creativity. A bad vibrancy is one that requires people to struggle to do basic things. A good vibrancy is one that gives room for people to experiment with things that have not been done before.

    What can be concluded from all the above? I would argue it is that the optimal balance between design and organic growth depends on one’s ‘level of zoom’ for a particular system. At the most zoomed out, good design is important. Good vibrancy, rather than bad vibrancy can only happen if the infrastructure or ‘skeleton’ is carefully developed. But is should not try to specify or predict everything – the ‘muscle’/’meat’/’detail’ can grow organically in the (many) gaps purposely left for it by the skeleton. Once the organic growth is taking place, it’s once again a question of careful but limited design to prune off some ill-effects or fertilise/encourage creativity by adding flourishes (parks, museums, etc.) to certain places.

    It may well have to do with James Scott’s concepts of legible vs. illegible systems. Depending on the level at which you look at a system, the same system, however, can be both legible and illegible. Trying to impose design at illegible levels will leave behind sterility and fragility (which will need to decay or collapse for vibrancy to be able to emerge again). Forsaking design at legible levels, however, may well lead to much greater chaos, stress, conflict, and inefficiency than what could be achieved with judicious intervention.

  • RJ Koscielniak

    the heterogeneity forces us to sift through the new and old, reflecting on where we’ve been, how we’ve failed and how we will, very likely, fail again. cities must be both spaces of mimicry and memory: where micro-insurgencies and micro-secessions live simultaneously with complicity and complaisance. i’ve always said that inefficiency produces the leak through which the world enters. i agree with the atimoshenko regarding scott, and I’d like to invoke his notion of ‘infrapolitics’ as a way of complicating our ability to comprehend what a city is or how it is daily animated. the responsibility is, ultimately, on those who wield technologies of design or planning (whether professionally or habitually) to practice new literacies to the multiplicity of legibilities. at its core, a city is a place of disagreement, insurgency, conflict and contestation – these are the characteristics that produce the flesh of the city. we can’t hope to eliminate dissent or dissensus, and we must take care to understand that this only resurrects the modernist normative assumptions that destroy relations and associations. modernism was never just about buildings, it was more about how we rule each other: the categories, unifications and linearities of domination. these conditions don’t perish with the collapse of buildings.

    we would be best to remember that cities are people and not what is erected.

  • Harriet

    They are unappealing because there is nothing interesting to look at as you are walking by, and it is not a human scale experience. It’s as if all the things you pass by, variety in architectural detail, window dressings, signage are speaking to you — and then there is a period of silence. 

    This is similar to what happens when a Mall is built in an urban environment. It causes a void in the pedestrian experience.  

  • citibuddies

    Totally understandable result for me. One idea how to renew our cities w/o going into steril is by trying to do that not through individual efforts of one architect, but in a common, local effort with communities. Crowd-development and crowd-engineering so to say. This way the face of our city stays, clean but colourful and authentic, and reflects the culture of the people living there. Also it teaches the community to feel responsible for their local environment and surroundings. 

    the citibuddies team

  • Mark Christie

      Street “A” seems inviting
    and open but it is called “messier” and I think we have come to ‘accept’
    grime in NYC and that is so wrong. “B” seems cleaner but not welcoming.
    There is no reason why we cannot have the best of both:open,clean and
    old vintage feel.

  • Barbara

    Do  you really think that it is the “mess”  people  like   ?  Don´t  you think  , that  familiar  things , traditional  , wellkown  objects make   the  housy  feeling  ….  , like the  wood  chairs  , like  old  frames ,   etc…. ! Enrich   Street  B   with ” traditional  ” things  ,  artworks (  e.g.  on the  walls , streets )  ,  pieces  , ….modern art  …. things    people   like  to    have  around .. feeling  “at  home” ….. in their  neigbourhood  , maybe ??!!  A  good  mixture      ”   without  the  mess ” seems to be  a good  solution  !  Modern   places  are  also  comfortable     ,    there is     only  far to much    lack of  color    and  plants  ….    and art   …  uniqueness  ,  …

  • Anonymous

    Great post and great points! I agree with introducing more “mess,” but perhaps “mess” isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps it’s more like building one’s own home. It doesn’t need to be pristine, I needs to feel comfortable, approachable. I was thinking about those precise things when I wrote this post on LA’s Silver Lake area vs my own neighborhood: Nice to know I wasn’t the only one to notice! 

  • glambourine

    DESIGNED BAD VIDEO GAME LEVELS IN THE PAST: street A has things for a
    human being to do. Street B has big windows that correspond to the
    golden ratio or something. I say that people prefer street A less because
    of formal aesthetic concerns and more because they are creatures of will and
    like the ability to impose their will on spaces. Street B feels
    like an asshole runs it, one who won’t let you do that.

    In other words: it isn’t the messiness so much as the total lack of interactivity. If you had a pristine, excitingly fractal-based Stanley Kubrick street that had lots of small nodes where people could do things or interact with features of the nodes, I think people might prefer it to Street A. It’d be a more interesting experiment, maybe.

  • Daniel Latorre

    On my mind lately is the idea of the present as a shift towards something like an open source commons, not just in bits but in bricks as well. Bottom-up methods where the community is at the center due to increased information and technical capacity to manufacture and remix locally inspired by patterns from all around the world, yet interpreted locally. Another thought– look at how the medium of newly built forms are made, many current buildings are all made via the medium of AutoCAD… what if new buildings weren’t all made with the *same* proprietary software? I heard a story once that an executive at Autodesk could look at an aspect of a new building and guess correctly which version of AutoCAD was used to design it. Programmed homogeneity? When will we have open source variety in apps to make our cities? Just some streams of thought from this…. I did one of those walks that Charles and Colin set up and am happily reminded of that contrasty wander.

  • carmen


  • John McKenzie

    IMHO this is less a question of messy or clean than one of invitation verses barriers.  Street “A” has many invitations (to enter,sit, sip, snack, etc.) Where street “B” has 7 feet of concrete, some trees (which are a nice attempt to soften the space) and a huge monolithic barrier completely separating (if not repelling) the people on the inside and the people on the outside. I offer that the elements of invitation can be built with a clean, beautiful aesthetic without being cold.

  • Mark Friesen

    This post reminds me of one of the best and liveliest neighborhoods that I’ve ever experienced in Taipei.  At one point there was a train passing directly through this neighborhood of apartments, but ever since the train has been replaced with an underground subway there remains, between the apartment buildings, a long stretch of wide open space that is not a street or a park or…?  But it has evolved into one of the liveliest and enjoyable open markets in taiwan, with a huge variety of both permanent street level shops and more transient street vendors.  And in the middle you’ll find groups doing morning tai-chi, families, etc…

    And it all arose because of totally unplanned space, that sprung up once a railroad was removed. 

  • Rethink Urban


  • Rethink Urban

    As others have noted, scale and control of space are two keys. “Redevelopment” too often = consolidating 20 small spaces / properties into one. Even when given 20 cute storefronts, the new space is essentially a monoculture. Same cost-of-entry hurdles for all who wish to live / work there. More organic development of small spaces allows the cracks / gaps where micro businesses can create interesting niches – many which fail, some which succeed. It’s not about the facade so much as the infrastructure. Are there diverse economic options on a given street, or in a neighborhood? Decay isn’t necessary but less desirable spaces actually create opportunities…

  • Elaine Bentley Baughn

    I’m thinking about this in terms of Yin design and Yang design — the former more irregular, circuitous, engaging, the latter sharper and possibly off-puttingly precise.  Perhaps a target would be to achieve a moving balance of the two, places where people, like Chi, can “pool” but not stagnate, flow without intensely rushing.  Not a static perfection but an approximation, a dynamic balance.

  • City Boy

    Plants can fill this need for visual complexity. All buildings should be designed to be covered in vines and vegetation. There should be planters full of natural growth, weeds, flowers everywhere. Unkempt industrial streets during the summer in Williamsburg, where grass and weeds grow from broken sidewalks, is beautiful. We just need plentiful designated places for this to happen in the more common areas.