Dezeen Magazine

Alain de Botton

Most "nice architecture" built before 1900 says Alain de Botton's The School of Life collective

A collective led by author and Living Architecture founder Alain de Botton has attacked the "dispiriting, chaotic and distasteful" architecture of urban environments in an essay titled Why is the Modern World So Ugly?

The article published on The School of Life organisation's website states that our ancestors would be shocked at the "horrors" of modern architecture.

"One of the great generalisations we can make about the modern world is that it is, to an extraordinary degree, an ugly world," said the essay, which was anonymously written by a member of De Botton's The School of Life collective.

"If we were to show an ancestor from 250 years ago around our cities and suburbs, they would be amazed at our technology, impressed by our wealth, stunned by our medical advances – and shocked and disbelieving at the horrors we had managed to build," continued the article.

"Societies that are, in most respects, hugely more advanced than those of the past have managed to construct urban environments more dispiriting, chaotic and distasteful than anything humanity has ever known."

"The very word beauty became taboo"

The School of Life is an organisation that aims to help people live fulfilling lives. It was founded by Swiss author De Botton, who is also its chairperson.

De Botton has written numerous books including The Architecture of Happiness and presented the television series The Perfect Home. He is also the founder of the Living Architecture project, which has seen eight holiday homes by leading architects built across the UK.

Speaking to Dezeen, De Botton would not say who wrote the piece. "The School of Life is an anonymous collective and I cannot take attribution for this piece," he said.

The column outlines the reasons buildings have become ugly starting with the fact that the author believes modernist architects waged a war on beauty.

"When architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo," said the essay.

"The architects of the modern movement began to wage a war on what they now described as the effeminacy, wastefulness and pretention of all previous 'beautifying' moves."

According to the author, this dismissal of beauty in favour of functionality gave developers free rein to develop buildings that did not need to aesthetically pleasing.

"In no time, what had started as an interesting niche idea had become justification for vast suburbs and commercial districts devoid of even a semblance of charm," it said. "Sheds and brutal boxes abounded."

Originality "unwelcome in architecture"

Alongside the war on beauty, the author highlighted several other factors he believes have contributed to the creation of ugly architecture.

One of these is architects' desire to create buildings that are different from each other, rather than historical buildings that were "beautifully impersonal and repetitive".

"The world forgot that 'originality' is as unwelcome in architecture as it would be in bakery or brain surgery," said the article.

"One isn't looking here for constant shock and surprise, one wants predictable rules and harmony."

The author also lists increasing urban sprawl, not using local materials and a lack of focus on mental health as contributing factors in the creation of today's ugly cities.

Bad buildings "stand defacing the earth for 300 years"

The essay concludes that the culmination of these factors means that architects have created an ugly world out of "stupidy", rather than a lack of resources.

"It used to be a reassuring assumption that money would eventually assure beauty for all," said the article.

"But modernity has taught us a darker lesson: that what ultimately makes for good architecture are sensible ideas and that we have built an ugly world out of stupidity, not lack of resources," it continued.

"It's a stupidity we pay very dearly for. A dumb book or song can be shelved and disturb no one. A dumb building will stand defacing the earth and upsetting all who must look at it for 300 years."

Nice architecture "is hugely oversubscribed"

The author adds that as the majority of modern buildings are ugly, the more beautiful historic buildings are now exclusive and overused.

"As a result, the nice architecture there is, most of which was built before 1900, is hugely oversubscribed and collapsing under a weight of tourists," said the article.

"We have democratised comfort, we have made beauty appallingly exclusive. The challenge is to remember our longing for beauty – and to fight the forces that would keep us from acting on it."

The essay was published last May but recently resurfaced on Twitter.

The idea of beauty in architecture in the UK has become a hot topic following the UK government's creation of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which aims to encourage beautiful architecture but which has been accused of being anti-modern.

In a column for Dezeen, architect Sam Jacob described the commission as "a front for the continuing attack on progressive ideas".

The commission's first chair, the late Roger Scruton, blasted modern architecture in a speech in 2018, saying UK cities had been "obliterated by ugly deposits of concrete and steel" by"a nation that had celebrated its victory over Hitler by committing aesthetic suicide", he said.

Meanwhile, in the USA, president Trump recently passed an executive order stating that all new US government buildings must be "beautiful".

The order, which is titled Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture, states "Care must be taken, however, to ensure that all federal building designs command respect [sic] of the general public for their beauty and visual embodiment of America's ideals."

The photograph is by Rosie Hardy.