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A common myth suggests that the unattractiveness of new buildings over the last century is due to rational or economic reasons, implying that building beautifully is too costly. In this article, I’ll debunk this idea and uncover the real reason behind the prevalence of unappealing architecture. And show you why ugly modernist buildings are often way more expensive than those built in traditional styles.
You know it. I know it. Everyone knows – and there are hundreds of studies to prove it. An absolute majority find traditional architecture more aesthetically pleasing than modernist architecture. Here´s a post that links to about 20 of them. Yet, almost 99.9% of all new architecture is modernist. I, like most people outside the profession, used to believe that this was only due to rational or economic reasons.
Design Rationality: Truth Behind Building Costs and Styles
What surprises many, is that classical buildings are very rational in their design. The basic shapes and symmetry of traditional architecture are not just for aesthetic purposes; they also serve practical and construction-related functions. This thoughtful design approach contributes to the overall stability and structural integrity of classical buildings. Even if you add external detailing, it won´t necessarily lead to any significant cost increases. During the late 19th and early 20th century, before the modernist paradigm shift, such details were manufactured industrially. With today’s technology, the cost of ornaments or details would be negligible compared to the overall construction cost.
In 2017, dutch scientists decided to study the impact of architectural building styles on prices. They found that traditional or neo-traditional architecture had the same construction costs as modernist architecture. However, people were willing to pay a premium for traditional architecture. Simply because the supply didn’t match the demand. There’s a vast array of new modernist architecture, while new traditional architecture is rare. Especially in urban environments where those residing in the building have little or no direct influence on the aesthetic design of the building.
The same year, a similar study was conducted in Sweden. They found that the real obstacle to more aesthetically pleasing new construction lies not in economic constraints but rather in individuals or processes, allowing room for improvements.
Breaking Myths: Uncovering the Modernist Resistance to Traditional Architecture
So, most people favor traditional architecture, willingly paying extra for it despite similar construction costs to modernist homes. Yet, almost all new buildings remain modernist. Why?
Let’s be frank: resistance against traditional architecture comes from modernists, often found within the profession. This opposition traces back to early modernist movements, fostering myths that positioned modernist architecture as the sole path to shaping the new, modern individual.
I’ve delved into this topic in a detailed Swedish article, outlining how this resistance hampers the construction of new traditional architecture. Read more about it here. One of the modernist myths mentioned suggests traditional architecture is more expensive to build.
Modernists argue for an image of authentic traditional architecture using only traditional materials, devoid of industrial production. Simultaneously, they link modernist architecture with contemporary construction techniques, despite these being fundamentally different things.
As mentioned earlier, industrial production predates modernist architecture, with mass-produced details commonly applied to facades decades before the first modernist houses were built. Contrarily, the initial modernist buildings were crafted by hand due to technological limitations.
The Pricey Reality of Using Geometrical-Shaped Buildings as Decor
Today architecture also includes cost-increasing elements, such as large glass sections or asymmetrical window placements. This is true for both everyday functional architecture, like apartment buildings, and public profile buildings.
However, it is mostly notable when it comes to profile buildings or so-called landmarks. Modernist architecture is based on the idea that it is the geometrical shape of the building that is the decoration. This leads to extremely expensive and dysfunctional buildings.
Take the Walkie-Talke building in London as an example. Costing over $250 million, the curved glass skyscraper had a design that melted cars and even set buildings on fire. The owners had to pay compensation to the car owners and installed a temporary screen on the building to solve the problem.
Or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, USA, by Frank Gehry. This modernist landmark was not only expensive to build at $274 million but also caused unexpected problems. The concave surfaces received the burning sun rays and reflected them to the neighboring houses, causing glare and a significant temperature rise. The adjacent streets, also, suffered from glare which has raised the risks for traffic accidents. There was no option but to sandblast the facade. That operation alone cost about $180,000.
Compare this to the reconstruction of Potsdam City Palace, Germany, a couple of years later. This is also a landmark building, attracting a large number of tourists daily. With $130 million the cost was less than half, and this includes the costs for an exact reconstruction of a historic palace facade.
Other Hidden Costs of Modernist Design
While our focus has been on construction costs in this article, there’s more to ponder. Traditional or vernacular architecture, tailored to local conditions, contrasts with the uniformity of modernist designs.
In my home country, Sweden, every year brings headlines about roofs of newly built houses leaking or collapsing due to the choice of flat roofs in areas with heavy annual snowfall.
One might also contemplate how the look of the built environment directly affects both mental and physical well-being. Alternatively, the minimal inclination to preserve modernist architecture often leads to routine demolitions without any protest.
Considering these factors, a crucial question arises: Can we afford more modernist buildings?