Trying to answer ‘Why are all these new buildings so ugly?’

Development at Carson Boulevard and South Boulevard, along light rail line. Photo: David Walters

“You're an architect! Can you tell me why all these new buildings are so ugly?”

If I earned $100 each time I’ve answered that question in the last few months, I could treat my wife to a vacation in Tuscany.

Something unusual is happening in Charlotte: People are discussing architecture. That’s good news.

The bad news is these conversations are catalyzed by a rash of new apartment buildings that, in the public’s mind, range from mediocre to downright awful. Everyone has a personal choice for the worst: Mine sits at South Boulevard and Carson Boulevard in South End. It is the epitome of bad urbanism. On every side that faces a public street or the sidewalk trail beside the Lynx light rail, dull blank walls prevail (except for a small portion at one corner). All other pedestrian-level façades offer the dreaded “cars behind bars.” Especially disappointing: a diagonal cut at the tracks on Carson.

Here, a potentially pleasant pedestrian plaza is created. Imagine it lined with a few small cafés and a bicycle store. That would be a community asset. But on this most valuable piece of real estate, at the pedestrian apex of the project, what do we get? Cars behind bars, blank walls, utility boxes and a few bushes overlooking a gimmicky splash pad.

Even if the architects didn't understand the importance of lining pedestrian space with active uses, why didn’t the developers realize this piece of real estate was too valuable to surrender to gimmicks, when they could have created a lively commercial corner on a sidewalk just 50 yards from a light rail station?

To be fair, some decent developments stand out as above average. The Crescent Development at Morehead Street and the Sugar Creek Greenway in Dilworth is one. The Ashton high-rise apartments at Tremont Avenue and the light rail in South End is another. Clearly, some architects and developers know how to create buildings that relate well to the public spaces in neighborhoods. It’s not rocket science.

But what are our city planners thinking when they permit the urban blunders so evident in many new apartment buildings? Charlotte’s zoning code talks about requiring lively pedestrian edges to buildings along streets and public spaces such as the rail trail. But time and again the code fails to produce the desired result.

There will always be sloppy architecture and mediocre development. That’s how the lower echelons of the development industry work. But strong, design-based codes can raise the level of bad architecture and careless development to something that at least passes for decent urbanism. Here in Charlotte our codes merely facilitate mediocrity.

I don’t think the city can wait the four or five years planners say it’s going to take for them to improve the zoning code. We need action now.

In the meantime, my friends’ questions persist: “Why can’t architects make better urban buildings?”

A colleague from private practice and I recently explained the reasons (and how to do things better) in a presentation about the importance of urban design to the annual conference of the N.C. chapter of the American Planning Association. We’re invited to give the same presentation to local architects in early 2016, part of a welcome initiative from the Charlotte section of the American Institute of Architects to enter the architectural debate and candidly examine the state of urban architecture in the Queen City.

For a variety of reasons, planning and architecture professionals mostly ignored urban design between 1950 and 1990. For both professions anything “old” in cities was considered worthless. Everything had to be made new. In those years architects were taught not to care much about old buildings or existing streets and neighborhoods. On Main Street we covered windows and beautifully crafted brickwork with blank aluminum panels. When we designed new buildings we treated them as big sculptures. To get the best views of the new monoliths, we cleared space all around them and actively ignored their context so that the buildings’ “artistic integrity” would not be “compromised.” Cities were torn apart, green fields paved over and new buildings offered blank plazas and huge parking lots.

 The traditional urbanism of two millennia was discarded in favor of a landscape built for quick convenience and designed for the car.

In this fiasco of Modernist urbanism (or, more accurately, anti-urbanism), what was lost were the city’s public spaces, places sized for people doing everyday things—walking, sitting, meeting, talking. Traditional cities always had well-defined public spaces that came in various forms—streets lined with buildings, village greens, courthouse squares or urban piazzas. These spaces had clear “edges”—entrances to buildings, stoops, porches, shop windows, cafés and so forth, all supporting what people were doing.

But there were other kinds of streets in the old industrial cities of America and England. These were containers of human misery, formed by filthy, disease-ridden slums and rat-infested dwellings with no sanitation.

In reaction to those awful conditions, reformist architects and planners in the early 20th century proclaimed “death to the street!” They dreamed instead of a bright new future full of new buildings in vast vistas of sunlit open space. In this way, despite—or because of—those good intentions, the whole concept of defined public space was lost on several generations of architects and planners.

The traditional urbanism of two millennia was discarded in favor of a landscape built for quick convenience and designed for the car. Pedestrians, in the language of those old modernist design manuals, became “impediments to free movement of vehicles.” Principles of urban design were forgotten, and this led inevitably to the soulless, generic and placeless development that cloaks the American landscape coast to coast in a blanket of depressing mediocrity.

Only in the 1990s did urban design begin to return as a revived discipline—initially as a bit player in America’s great urban dramas, nourished in the design studios of progressive schools of architecture. Today, good urbanism is taught in dozens of universities by faculty with a sense of urgent mission. But even now, teaching techniques for making livable, walkable and resilient cities is usually relegated to specialist graduate programs in urban design or occasional elective classes for architecture students. So however effective these urban design professors are, their teaching touches only a small percentage of architecture students. As a result, many practicing architects have at best only a sketchy knowledge of urbanism. This applies even to some top-flight architects who do well-regarded, stand-alone buildings.

A recent “community dialog” about the evolving design for a new office building at Camden Road and South Tryon Street in South End bears witness to this fact.

I am confident South End will eventually get a high-quality building on the site, and in a few years it will become an admired local landmark. But the community outcry at the original design—from designers and non-designers alike—was because the developers and their architects misread the urbanism that makes parts of South End special: buildings lining the street and small, intimate spaces branching off to other, discoverable enclaves. Urban design programs teach this awareness and urban responsiveness in the first semester; it’s pretty straightforward.

But now, in a revised design and with a lot of local help, the architects have got it right. Local people are relieved, and the design is much improved.

I am thrilled the local AIA is tackling this public discontent about low standards of architecture in the Queen City in a creative and responsible manner. Our profession has enabled bad urbanism for too long. The best thing we architects can do now is to learn honestly from our mistakes.

And we must work a lot harder to make sure we don't make these mistakes again.

David Walters is an architect and town planner and a UNC Charlotte professor emeritus who recently retired as director of the university’s Master of Urban Design program. Opinions in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.