“Why do all the new apartment buildings look so ugly?” asked an acquaintance recently. “Our friends from other cities,” he added, “notice how much they all look alike and say the same thing about them.”
Which should worry us.
While beauty — and ugliness — may remain in the eye of the beholder, our region competes with other cities for talent, for people who can live and work anywhere and who increasingly make that decision based on a place’s quality of life — and appearance. If people from other cities think our new buildings look alike and ugly, we have a problem.
The problem does not stem from a lack of talent on the part of our design community. We have, by all accounts, one of the largest concentrations of talented architects, skilled contractors and enlightened developers per capita in the country. But they have to play by the rules of a misguided attempt on the part of the city to create “visual interest” in its buildings, as the Minneapolis zoning-code website puts it.
To see the source of the problem, go to that website (http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/zoning/) and search for the “Guide to Exterior Building Walls and Materials.” Zoning codes typically address issues like building setbacks, heights and land uses, which affect the functioning of the city. But when zoning officials try to regulate aesthetics, watch out!
The “guide” lists a number of “authorized building materials” — itself a worrisome constraint in a city that prides itself on innovation and creativity — and it features a matrix that dictates the percentage of various types of cladding that can go on the “front/corner side, interior side (and) rear” elevations of buildings. In Minneapolis, the front elevation of a new apartment building can be no more than 30 percent fiber cement siding, 50 percent burnished concrete block and 75 percent wood or metal panels.
Why those percentages, and where they came from, the code doesn’t say.
These arbitrary prescriptions have determined the look of the city’s new multifamily residential buildings, which typically combine materials in cluttered patchworks of metal, brick, stone and glass, as if concocted by a number of collage artists.
At their best, these colorful compositions have an appealing intensity; at their worst, a boring repetitiveness. If nothing else, you have to admire the cleverness of architects in creating so many variations of these ultimately vacuous requirements.
I suspect the “guide” arose in reaction to the dreary monotony of too many modern buildings. But the “guide” goes too far in the other direction, enforcing a visual variety that has become just as dreary and replicates the very thing it seeks to avoid.
Early modern architects erred in thinking that certain materials — glass, steel and concrete — had to go together in certain ways according to a proscribed set of details and strict set of proportions, which helps explain why so many downtowns around the world look so much alike. But this “guide” assumes the same when it limits the number of authorized materials and dictates the extent of their use on a building, regardless of its design or context.
Ironically, after all of its fussy allocations of different percentages of different materials on different elevations, the “guide” also accepts 100 percent glass on all sides, implying that if we don’t like the collage-like elevations, we can always go back to the glass box, which seems pretty appealing given the visual busyness that this document has spawned.
A footnote in the “guide” also says “buildings should not include more than three exterior materials on each elevation,” as if to acknowledge that its maddening materials matrix can lead to one big architectural muddle.
Great cities — confident cities — don’t regulate aesthetics like this. They know the difference between arbitrary variety and authentic diversity. If we want to achieve the “visual interest” that this “guide” says it wants, the city should scrap this document and let the residents of Minneapolis vote with their feet when it comes to which apartment buildings they like the looks of and want to live in. If we are to compete with other cities for talent, we need to trust the design talent we have here and stop accepting so much well-intentioned ugliness.
Thomas Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.