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Dec 27, 2023Liked by Ben Landau-Taylor

A wise woman once told me (my mom!) always look for it at an antique store first: You’ll find something more unique and beautiful. Also, we just completed a DIY upholstery project on turn of the century dining rooms chairs. The logic being -- we’re going to spend a fortune on a new, plain dining room set that won’t look nearly as ornamental or interesting as these beautiful wood chairs. It was a labor of love (I can’t believe I’ve upholstered chairs) but here we are!

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Sep 8, 2023·edited Sep 8, 2023

The obvious counterpoint is that there many modern streetlight designs that are quite elegant. You chose a particularly disgusting streetlight as your example, but if you go to many newly developing cities you can see streetlights that may not be as charming as some antiquated ornamented lights, but they are also not blatantly offensive like the one in your example. That streetlight must've been purchased either by a city planner that despises other people or purchased during the 2000s (a dark time when the world was being flooded with disgusting designs at a pace unprecendented in human history, e.g. look at the best-selling cars from that era, then compare it to the previous decade or the decade after. What the hell happened?).

You can't even blame functionalism for that disgusting streetlight, since as you said, it ignores "the attention to aesthetics found in deliberate minimalism." A streetlight designed by Apple product designers probably would not be such a bad thing (as long as it didn't force me to sign in using my Apple ID).

If you're making a stronger point that a well-designed modern streetlight is inferior to a well-designed ornamented streetlight, I'm not sure if I entirely agree with that. But I do agree that even the most well-designed modern products have an inescapable sameness to them that diminishes the aesthetic personality of the thing, especially for public architecture and design.

The more fundamental aesthetic problem seems to me to be why there are no longer any distinct cultural features reflected in the general design of our personal and public spaces, which you touch on in the footnotes. The usual explanation other than the ones you offered is that the sameness is the result of globalization. An architecture firm employing a multinational team educated in multiple countries using standard textbooks and course material probably has 1) many of the same ideas as everybody else, and 2) they have to make a large degree of compromise even if they all have culturally distinct design ideas.

There are some famous counterexamples like the Xi'an International Football Centre (https://i.imgur.com/ukroPXA.png), but this is an expensive custom design that only works in a place already present with a highly developed aesthetic history. What happens in places with no cultural distinctness or aesthetic history? Trying to imagine a distinctive Texas football stadium is basically impossible. What even is Texas architecture? The closest thing is maybe old cowboy towns with semi-temporary wooden buildings. A football stadium in the style of a saloon would feel like a theme park at best and an oversized hipster shack at worst. A stadium in the neoclassical style like the Alamo would be even more comical. It would look like a giant McMansion with vestigial McMansion pillars. Would slapping on more ornamentation really fix the fundamental aesthetic problem? I don't think so.

That gets to the broader political problem. A country like the US is an assimilationist culture that also proselytizes under the liberal universalist dogma that all men are created equal. It's contradictory for a country such as the US to pursue distinctive cultural features while at same time trying to subsume the world under its cultural hegemony. The reason why people in cities all over the world watch the same movies and listen to the same music and wear same clothes and read the same news and even care about the same hot-button issues as Americans is that the US culture and media industry has been able to mass produce totally non-distinct, one-size-fits-all, globalized cultural products easily consumable by masses of people of all different backgrounds. In other words, if American culture were more distinct, it would be less attractive to non-Americans, and the US culture industry would not be able to exercise as much subjective control over the world. As long as American ideas and its mode of cultural production predominates in the world, that feeling of sameness, of Apple-ness, is also bound to remain.

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I was always told that gingerbread ornamentation went out when central heating came in. Would you rather have a pretty staircase or air conditioning, hot & cold running water, good insulation, easy to clean surfaces, a rain shower and so on? Modern housing may look bland, but most people prefer lower maintenance and greater comfort.

Compare those two lamp posts. The old one has two lamps to maintain as opposed to just one. Look at the height. That older style fixture emitted much less light, so there was no point in making it taller. The newer fixture lights up a much greater area. If your goal is pretty, the older lights have their charm, but, if your goal is illumination, you want the newer one.

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It had more to do with the reaction against the excessive Victorian Era ornamentation of everything, which was strengthen by the destruction of both World Wars One and Two. Newer generations wanted something different than their parents' choices and then ways had to be found to quickly replace the homes and offices that had become rubble.

Also, if one looks at the simplicity of Bauhaus, Brutalism which I personally loathe, Midcentury Modern, International, and other similar 20h Century architecture , the best of all of them have style, feeling, or beauty far greater than what passes for current architecture, whatever my personal feelings are.

I think that the "style" of most of what is being built or manufactured is dictated by greedy desire to extract ever last penny from the whole process. After all, even minimal ornamentation cost money to add and it might annoy a customer.

When you add the excessive Me, Me, Meism of Modern, Neoliberal "culture" including the denigration of beauty of any kind, the rising corruption, as well as the increasing poverty with the increasing emotional and physical stresses that the poverty imposes, people have less time to decide on, find, and then buy style. This includes music, clothing, furniture, housing, and so on. And our elites have absolutely no taste excepting ugly in your face grandiose Me-ism architecture.

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Some of the reason for this is what I've seen termed the "Budweiser" principle. The idea is that Bud is the most generic, least characterful "beer" that can be created so that it has the widest range of possible consumers and that it's very hard for people to have a negative reaction to the taste of it. Of course, their poor marketing is another problem.

I think some of the same thing is going on now with the increasingly generic and bland design we see everywhere - it has a feel of efficiency but in reality its purpose is to be as characterless as possible so that nobody can dislike it.

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Yes and no. The fact is that to a large extent the market is determined by those who buy in bulk. If something can be made on a small scale, then enlightened consumers can support its production even in a world gone mad. But things that require major capital investment rely on the major bulk-buyers patronising them. The more concentrated production is in a few hands, the more this holds true. Real estate companies prioritise cost and convenience because once they sell it has nothing to do with them any more, and boring things are (a) as a rule, cheaper (b) have wider use because they 'fit' everywhere. Obviously, public authorities don't care about quality. Fixing this requires changing economic incentives so that the preference of the overwhelming majority of people for ornament is reflected in the market system. Also, we need to kill all architects.

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I am currently trying to work my way through Oswald Spengler's 1918 "Decline of the West," and ornaments (and their absence or rejection) are an important feature in his theory for classifying the maturity of a culture. I kept thinking about this as I read this article.

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Art has retreated to color on canvas, and not to "real" things of functional value that require a higher degree of craftsmanship. Simply because people are more inclined to pay more for a picture on the wall or a sculpture than for the cost of custom made doorhandles or lamps. You can get high quality craftsmanship fairly cheap but it is usually made overseas and the alien art tradition shows.

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Some attempts to explain the change in fashion.

If there is a lot of stuff, ornamentation looks cluttered and minimalism looks nice. If there is not a lot of stuff, ornamentation looks special and minimalism looks impoverished. So the wealth of modernity goes towards minimalism. Consider the Internet where stuff is actually free - minimalism is preferred to design choice.

It's because people have a lot of stuff in their built environment. What they don't have the time or energy or interest to do, is curate. When people do actually curate, it is considered a luxury after everything else, so it actually signals wealth and taste. But the next best thing is usually considered bountiful minimalism, not spare ornate. Most people would take their laptop to work in a cafe then church, if a luxury resort is not available.

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Spot on! It seems like a common philosophy these days is to make everything "functional" or "uselful". It is almost as if beauty for its own sake is not valued. Besides, beauty in itself has utility, beyond what some may wish to s ee

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I suspect a number of things are in play here, a non-exhaustive list of which would include:

1. What's on people’s radars. If you want to buy plates, you go to somewhere that sells crockery. If they only sell bland minimalist items, you have Hobson’s choice. We buy what’s available, so manufacturers consequently make more of it. It’s a feedback loop that reaches an equilibrium where (perhaps) no one especially likes what’s available; but they don’t dislike it enough to make the effort to seek something else.

2. Economics. Beauty is subjective, so products that are dull and inoffensive will sell more than one particular person’s idea of beauty. I’m a fan of (well executed) Victorian gothic, but accept that some deluded individuals will prefer something else. Catering for everyone’s idiosyncrasies (assuming that was even possible) equals spreading oneself very thinly. Also, minimalism probably = cheaper. Ubiquity is King, financially.

3. The reactionary nature of fashion change. As alluded to by a previous commentator, there’s nothing so unfashionable as something that’s lately gone out of style. Things with longer lifespans (such as buildings and street furniture) will clearly persist, and so inform subsequent iterations of design. Shorter-lifespan things like clothing and popular music cycle through the hot-and-then-not much faster, and so have lesser impact long-term. Does this make sense? (Excuse me while I hate on Le Corbusier for a second; I genuinely want to superglue a model of the Parthenon onto his grave. If I was to be charitable, though, I’d say he was reacting against the “decoration-for-the-sake-of-it” extreme that was ubiquitous at the time.)

4. Sturgeon’s law. There’s a reason why aesthetic movements are started by small groups of like-minded people of similar age who are dissatisfied with the status quo. They are friends with a similar outlook who form an ad-hoc philosophy, probably evolving over time, which seeks to establish a new milieu. (We only notice the ones which were successful, obviously.) If successful, most of what’s produced in that style is a cheap knock-off produced by people who don’t understand the underlying ideals, with inevitable “Disney-esque” consequences. Thus, good ideas become “tainted” by association with everyone who jumped on the bandwagon. Thus, even well-meaning attempts to produce things which are better-than-average will end up being under par, fuelling the next aesthetic revolution.

Having said all of this, I do genuinely believe we all have a human need for visual complexity, which isn’t being met by current aesthetic trends. I suppose the question is, would people rather have a one-size-fits-nobody approach, or a crazy kaleidoscope of different styles; most of which we’ll be indifferent to, if not actively dislike?

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Ben, you raise a brilliant point. Thanks for that!

Two directions of thought came to mind: 'Cycles' & 'Calming down'

Cycles - As we see many styles from past decades coming back in some way, shape or form, we might actually be in a more 'tranquil'/minimalist part of the cycle. However I'm not so sure about that... just a different perspective.

Calming down - As we are living in hysterical times, which would go by the military acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), it might just be that we express the need for calm in and around our 'safe spaces' by buying calmer stuff. We still need Beauty to nourish our soul, but where the very drab world of the past required 'beautifying' the stuff, the frazzled world of today (with a lot of debatable beauty) with lots of attention-grabbing elements around us (let's not forget the bizarre volume of information aimed at us compared to the past), we are longing for simplicity, calm, focus, etc.

We see Marie Kondo shining hard with decluttering etc. Minimalism in design and every aspect of our lives. You might even point at the trend of having time off (-screen) as the ultimate luxury of today.

This might bring up the question whether at some point, when there would be a less hysterical world, we would turn back to more ornate elements around us...

Anyway, please keep bringing up these marvelous topics!

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I agree that nine times out of ten it takes no more cost and effort to make something attractive. Cast iron is a bad example as the cost has shot up many times over; there used to be foundries on every street corner and they are now rare. Firefighting equipment cabinets should be startling red rather than discreetly tasteful. Why do wheelie waste bins have to be black? Red, green, pink, orange pigment would probably only add a cent or two cost, and garbage day when everyone puts their bins out would become a colorful event. Would it have bankrupted Elon to employ a six-year-old rather than a five-year-old to design the Cybertruck? My rule for home decor is for economical reasons! minimalist but every item should be a delight to use and to behold.

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Representational art went out of fashion at the same time beautiful design did, and for over 100 years it was considered gauche and Biedermeierist to enjoy it. But just as the hunger for representational art couldn't be entirely suppressed in favor of random splotches on canvas, the hunger for beauty is starting to make itself felt.

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I‘m an American who lived in Houston for ten years before moving to eastern Austria a few years ago. Vienna provides an interesting counterpoint to the cheap utility design of Houston. It’s not just Vienna‘s grand or historic buildings that show a delight in ornamentation; houses, apartment buildings and shops from different periods up to the present incorporate ornamental details. There’s plenty of blocky, detail-free newer buildings, but they aren’t yet the norm. And the interest in design details isn’t just in the historic city. It’s everywhere, including my village of 2k people well outside any city.

No idea why this difference exists. One other difference I see between the two places: I‘ve never seen an area of Austria that looks as though no one cares about it. Not the norm in the US.

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Great piece. There is always a reason for an aesthetic. In this case, bland empty modernism might be designed (ha ha “designed”) to keep us middle-class nobodies from getting all uppity and thinking beyond our station. Or it’s a reflection of the soulless profit motive of the people who churn this stuff out: they simply don’t care.

Either way, your recommendations are great. Be the change, etc. and so on. It’s cliche but true!

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I was just asking this question to my nephews when I visited my home country in Singapore: How many of the new buildings in this country will stand the test of time?

this is not just a question of durability, but one of timeless beauty.

I really enjoyed this article and the examples you gave e.g. streetlights

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