The joy of boring buildings

“I don’t want to be interesting,” said Mies van der Rohe. “I want to be good.” From the architect who also said “Less is more”, it is one of culture’s finest, and most foundational quotes. 

Some might say that Mies, who pioneered the transparent glass house and the fully glazed, curtain-walled office tower, was at least partly responsible for the banal streetscapes of the contemporary city. They may be right. But Mies’s own buildings, from his Farnsworth House in Illinois (1951) to the Seagram Building in New York (1958) are ineffably elegant, exquisitely engineered and detailed, sublime in their minimalism, ethereal in their ghostly presence.

Some might say that as an architect, my view is tainted, that I have been immersed in a culture (or even a cult) which values this kind of purity and am no longer critical. Perhaps that’s true too.

There has been a lot of talk recently about boring architecture. This comes most notably from designer Thomas Heatherwick, who, in his book Humanise: A Maker’s Guide to Building Our World, writes of a “blandemic”. It has also been coming from an increasingly insistent conservative lobby, in pressure groups and on social media, who post pictures of cities in Italy or crescents in Bath, suggesting that this is what we have somehow lost. These streets, incidentally, are always in a European past.

There is something, you might think, in it. To walk through a new exurb, planned around cars rather than people, with its cookie-cutter houses and sickly trees, its swaths of tarmac, slashes of fencing and lack of any sense of place or character is undeniably depressing. As is, probably, a walk through a central business district, anywhere from Chile to China: the anonymous glazed walls and the glimpses of bored, alienated security guards, the sheer lack of variety. 

Like everything in contemporary culture, though, it is not that simple. Heatherwick blames architects, notably Le Corbusier, whom he christens “The God of Boring”. Le Corbusier appears here as a caricature: the man who wanted to replace central Paris with tower blocks; the man indirectly responsible for every grim slab tower and rain-stained housing estate; the humourless, ego-driven architect in the bow-tie and the round glasses. But he is also an odd target.

As it happens, I am one of the vanishingly few architects who has rarely been seduced by Le Corbusier’s work, but to call the designer of the Villa Savoye (1931) or Notre-Dame du Haut (1955) chapel boring is perverse. Even the housing he designed in Marseille, the Unité d’Habitation (1952), which has been blamed for so many poor imitations, is a wonder: humane and thoughtful, with social infrastructure built into it alongside a welter of decorative touches from light fittings to stained glass.

Heatherwick suggests, as have other commentators, that “science” tells us that people prefer ornamented buildings. Referring to the subject of a research project on stimulation in environments conducted by Colin Ellard, Heatherwick writes: “The Boredom wasn’t just making them feel nothing. Their brains and bodies were going into a state of stress . . . Boring modern landscapes, which privilege repetition over complexity, supply us with an unnaturally low level of information . . . When the brain is deprived of information from its environment, it takes it as a signal that something is wrong. It panics.”

Boring architecture is, he suggests, stressing us out.

But what, exactly, is boring architecture? I guess we know it when we see it: the steel, glass and concrete towers, the generic storefronts, the anonymous blocks. This, though, is the architecture of global neoliberalism. It is the result of deliberate regulation, global supply chains, the market, the demands of contractors for a certain homogeneity (so they can keep building the same, familiar thing) and a market that likes certainty and is decidedly nervous of anything different. The preponderance of the generic is a product of a particular kind of capital.

Exterior of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona
Light flooded inside of the church Sagrada Familia

In his book, pleading for something different, Heatherwick points to the work of Gaudí, which he encountered in a remaindered book as a student, to provoke the question: couldn’t architecture be a little more extravagant?

Of course! Gaudí, we all love Gaudí, the crazy Catalan (undeniably not boring) who was run over by a tram and whose Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona is, astonishingly (and controversially), nearing completion almost a century after his death.

But do we really want to live in a city designed by Gaudí? Would that not be a queasy, urban acid trip? The dripping stone and distorted walls, the melting iron tendrils and octopus-eye windows? Gaudí works because it is so astonishingly different. If everything was a bit Gaudí, we would, I think, quite quickly become nauseous.

Adolf Loos, the renowned architect who made his career in Vienna, is probably now most famous for his sardonic essay “Ornament and Crime”, wrote in 1910 that “only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.”

For Loos, the essence of architecture was its responsibility to perform as background. He compared it to British tailoring. “What does it mean to be well-dressed?” he asked. “It is a question of being dressed in such a way that one is least noticeable.” The quality of the clothes was in their understatedness. But also, the quality of their tailoring. It is harder to make something quiet well than to make something outrageous but unwearable.

When Loos was commissioned in 1909 to design a store for a gentlemen’s outfitters in Vienna opposite the fussy Baroque Hofburg palace, the media erupted in outrage. Designs showed a plain white facade, with no mouldings around the windows, no sculptures, no pediments or reliefs. One famous cartoon showed the architect looking at a drain cover and finding his “inspiration”.

It was condemned as offensively boring, though to our eyes, conditioned to a more minimal aesthetic, it looks luxurious, with a richly veined marble-clad base, bronze columns flanking the door and exquisite shop windows. It is, I think, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The Hofburg, by contrast, is a little gross, affected, twee and suffering from palatial overdose, the architecture of empire and privilege.

Alternatively, we might look back to Britain, to that most often cited archetype of urbanity, a mainstay of the marble-bust Twitter/X stalwarts and the prolific posters of trad content — the Georgian terrace. Dominating an era roughly between about 1700 and 1840, it is often considered the high point of British urbanism. But take a look at the unadorned windows, the plain brick walls, the repetition, the flat facades. Is it not, well, a little bit boring?

Georgian terrace in London, exterior

My contention would be yes, and all the better for it. It conforms to Loos’s Anglophilic ideas about the restraint of English tailoring. Georgian terraces, those unrelieved, utterly unadorned, flat brick facades (in which the quality of design resides more in proportion than decoration) now represent some of the most valuable real estate in the world — think Mayfair and Chelsea.

Or how about those much-imitated docklands districts in London, Hamburg, New York and elsewhere? Those vast warehouses of brick and iron? Their walls are relentless, their scale is brutal; this was an architecture for goods and not for people. Yet they have almost invariably become the locus of gentrification. Their big unadorned spaces prove perfect for a modern lifestyle, their scale and, in a way, their anonymity has made them flexible and resistant to fashion. 

More surprising still is the recent resurrection from oblivion of Brutalism. Not long ago condemned as inhumane and dystopian, its sculptural qualities, integration of social infrastructure, light and space of the apartments compared with their meaner modern counterparts and, perhaps most of all, the sheer optimism in a better future make Brutalist buildings extremely attractive to many urban dwellers today.

Just as there are classical boosters whingeing about the collapse of western civilisation, social media also hosts a growing ecosystem of diehard Brutalist fans. They post pictures of what once might have been criticised as bleak, windswept estates but now appear as emblematic of a golden era of plentiful housing and architecture as a social good — rather than a tool co-opted by commerce for the purposes of gentrification and “added value”.

To these we might also add the architecture of Bologna, once studded with hundreds of unadorned brick towers and massive, fortified palazzi, boring (even Brutalist) in their own way, or a neighbourhood of grey brick-walled hutongs in Beijing. Or, perhaps, the backstreets of Venice: plain, unadorned walls, simple windows relieved only by shades of faded paint and peeling plaster. We might think of the traditional Arabic city centre of white-walled cubic houses — of the sort said to have appealed to both Loos and Le Corbusier — in which the action is all on the inside and little, if anything is exposed to the world. The Pueblo houses of New Mexico, similarly, give little away to the street.

Adobe mud brick ‘Pueblo’ architecture

If we look to more modern designs we might scan the skyline of New York. The chaotic cocktail of capital and memorialisation around the rebuilding of Ground Zero has not yielded a huge amount of interest. The Twin Towers (designed by Minoru Yamasaki) were themselves dismissed as boring — the high point, perhaps, from the high-point of late-modern 1970s banality. But when they were gone, their ghosts seemed somehow ineffably beautiful and elegant.

The best new tower on the site is not One World Trade Center, the tallest tower and the one that tried hardest to be interesting, but Fumihiko Maki’s reflective and unassuming 4 World Trade Center. It is an astonishingly austere and finely built tower, not that interesting, perhaps, but very good.

Further uptown, amid the bristling scrum of pencil-thin supertalls that now create a fence for the southern edge of Central Park, by far the finest is Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue, a simple, reductive grid extruded into a 3D tower. It is almost ethereal in its presence, its sheer simplicity (or perhaps its boringness?), creating a counter-intuitively new language from the most stripped down of elements. If you struggle with recognising its sophistication, it might be worth looking back across the Atlantic to the “Walkie Talkie” (20 Fenchurch Street), where the same architect attempted to be “interesting”. Bulging, incongruous and top-heavy, it is a mess.

And it is not alone. Look to the rash of towers increasingly homogenising the skylines of the world’s cities and you will see what Danish urbanist Jan Gehl has dubbed “perfume bottle” architecture. Each tower attempts to compete with its neighbour, to become its own branding, its own logo. This attempt to create new identities through architecture has itself ironically become boring in its incessant search for novelty. Everywhere looks the same in the search for difference.

The tower of the Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) building, London, juxtaposed with Victorian building and the sky

Or, finally, we might look over the Channel at Pritzker Prize (and, last month, Soane Medal) winners Lacaton & Vassal. With a slogan of “Never Demolish”, the French architects have made a career through the careful reimagining of boring buildings. Their now famous revivifications of slab housing blocks in Bordeaux and Paris, encasing them in glass and polycarbonate and creating winter gardens for each apartment — expanding the footprint while allowing residents to continue living inside throughout the building process rather than demolishing, decanting and destroying the delicate networks of community — have been a revelation.

The new buildings remain unassuming, even boring, perhaps. But they are beautiful because they expand capacity, sustainably retain existing structures (and communities) and also save money. It’s much cheaper to enhance than to start again. And as they remain, in essence, the same boring slab blocks, they remind us, perhaps, that we are facing a housing crisis, a climate catastrophe and an atomisation of communities as neighbourhoods are destroyed by gentrification and rebuilding. It is not boredom that is making us unwell, it is all of the social, economic and environmental crises we face.

Heatherwick is not entirely wrong about contemporary architecture. It can certainly be soulless, repetitive and disposable. And I would never argue that there should be no interesting, experimental or radical buildings. They can be a delight, a provocation and a necessary way to test new ideas. But boring is not always bad. We love Venice and Rome and Edinburgh and Chicago and the rest but not everything in them is interesting. Critics including Baudelaire, Flaubert and Zola railed at the destruction of medieval Paris and the repetitive monotony of the 19th-century boulevards built by Haussmann, now so universally admired: it is thought of as the ideal tourist city. People distrust the new and flock to the familiar.

Much of the architecture of the great cities was originally a bit boring; the tenements and the backstreets, the brick warehouses and the Roman walls, the castles, the alleys and the backs of buildings, but they gained the patina of use. Accretions, additions and adaptations deepened their complexity and embedded them in the life of the city. That is how cities work. We do not need everything to be interesting. Being good would be better.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

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