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Mackenna Lee

Disembark, Grow, Illuminate.

University Campuses are Ugly

In our aesthetic appreciation of design, we are awfully quick to judge. I am equally guilty, as I’ve fashioned myself a stylist, architect, city planner, food visual artist all from the comfort of my armchair.

Humans love complaining. Though, criticism can be interpreted as necessary for improvement. It can also bring about broad negativity which further incites misunderstanding.

Like I said, I am no stranger to this hasty rejection of “ugly”. When walking to class in university, I passed structures lacking in decorative flair. Brutalism, an architectural style known for its concrete, geometric, harsh edges, provided steady fodder for my complaints. Even on a good day, they soured my mood, emitting a cold, calculating, imposing aura. These structures still challenge my personal tastes. That is, until the story of a seemingly ordinary demolition.

Leacock Building, Wikimedia.

The Dreams of Robin Hood Gardens

The Robin Hood Gardens is a contested topic among architects and residents. The public housing project sits in East London, an area bombed heavily in both World Wars and known for its lower income residents.

The architects responsible for crafting the building did so with care, intending the long columns to be “pathways in the sky”. Though well-intended, the buildings failed to live up to those ideals. The pathways stood empty, apocalyptic. The sharp edges trend harsh over modern. The Gardens were lauded for its significance to architecture, but area-residents disagreed.

More recently, the Gardens inspired architectural contests on preservation versus honoring the actual tenants.

Robin Hood Gardens, ArchDaily.

Preserve or Demolish?

One side lies the romantic artists, defending the intentions and evolution of a space transitioned. Prior to the Gardens, run-down, ill-insulated Tenement buildings stood next to ship yards. The derelict buildings did not generate community-based, sustainable homes. The Gardens transformed the space. Yet still, the residents, whose tastes may adore the regency décor found in Bristol, see problems.

Kings Weston in Bristol, Dan Regan.

My sympathy begins with the residents – why should they be guinea pigs experimenting with the art of creation? Their functional lives should not be subject to our quixotic canvas. As noted in the article above, the noise of preservation campaigning drowned out the residents.

But…. I cannot help but wish for its maintenance as well. The media coverage at the time brought low-cost, “everyday” housing to the forefront of public opinion. Certain design decisions struggled in implementation, though other smart choices enlivened an industrial area. From shipping yard to family homes.

Robin Hood Gardens’ Pathways, Domus.

The Case for Appreciation

Mainstream architecture digest focuses heavily on museums, airports, wealthy residences, and office buildings. Why is boldness refuted in our common dwellings?

When we spot stark differences, rejection is natural. Communities serve demolition orders for buildings slipping outside our tightly-controlled palate. Suburbs proliferate with subdivisions, tightly-controlled areas curtailed by HOAs. Where does design by committee hinder our daring? Why are sameness and “coloring within the lines” celebrated? The more accepting, and even appreciative, we are of the differences – we may find ourselves in an explosive innovation.

Brutalism and I are not joined at the hip, I won’t be calling up all my concrete buildings to hang out. Perhaps that’s my hypocritical nature – to love something I do not have to endure. I still don’t think they ought to be erased from society like I once did.

They exist, even if unfavorable to my eyes, to demonstrate we can progress and reach for great things, no matter our intended purpose. Even if it’s low cost housing.

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