secret_history (2006-22)

Requiem for an Ugly Building

Why do we hate the architecture of our youth?

by Jack Neely

In early 2003, with no municipal authority at all, I proposed demolishing 10 conspicuous buildings. I made arguments that they were each dysfunctional or aesthetically problematic in one way or another. The article was called “Tear It Down!” On the cover we put a big color photograph of the No. 1 building on the list, a two-story glass-and-steel structure with undulating awnings at the corner of Kingston Pike and Concord Street. Judging by the response, it may have been the least-controversial cover image we’ve ever run. Everybody hated that building. Almost everybody.

The Inter-Agency Insurance Building was torn down late last month. Archer Furrow, the redoubtable real-estate firm headquartered in the handsome old house behind it, means to leave that space open, relandscaped with green. Most welcome that development.

Most. Knox Heritage’s annual listing of the “Fragile 15,” the city’s most threatened historical structures, was released, perhaps coincidentally, at about the same time the backhoe started busting the building’s glass. This time there’s a new entry on the list, a generic one: “Mid-Century Modern Commercial and Residential Buildings, 1945-65.” Preservationists say many are being lost before they can be properly appreciated.

To some admirers of modern architecture, the Inter-Agency Insurance Building, the former IBM building, almost half a century old, was valuable as one of the first unapologetically modernist buildings in town and, by some accounts, a good design.

Of course, even some of its defenders admit, it probably shouldn’t have been built there in the first place. Building one building in front of another one is, at best, rude. It blocked an appealing historic house. It was also an urban-style building adrift in a neighborhood where no others were. Built flush with the sidewalk, it had doors on the sidewalk, but no obvious use for the sidewalk. Visitors used the parking lot in back.

Nothing ages as badly as modern architecture. When brick or stone gets stained with weather and age, the leachings of rotten leaves and avian excrement, it’s called a “patina.” When steel and glass and concrete get stained, it’s just a mess. That building was sometimes a mess.

And we have to admit that modern architecture has some inherent challenges. It was probably the first form of architecture based not on its appeal to a mass audience but on academic principles. Maybe Tom Wolfe’s wicked manifesto, From Bauhaus to Our House , which posited that modern architecture was a fraud perpetrated on the gullible, and which thousands of non-architects read with glee, wasn’t quite fair. But if mere civilians have to be educated about a building’s beauty, maybe there’s a basic problem with the lesson.

And there’s a broader question. When we ran that cover story three and a half years ago, it was hard not to notice that all the people who came to the defense of that building and a couple of other modernist buildings on the list were younger than me, and unborn when architects chose the style.

I’ll go a little ways out on a limb here and say that most people over, say, 40, dislike modern architecture, specifically, the architecture of the 1940s through the 1970s. I’ll go a little farther than that. People hate the architecture of their youth.

It doesn’t make any obvious sense. Humans are a nostalgic race. We love the music of our youth, the TV shows, the cars. We just don’t like the architecture. What was predominant at the time we were first aware of what architecture was is, for the most part, what we want to get rid of as adults.

Maybe I’m stretching a point, but anecdotes hint that it may be universal, pan-generational.

As a small child, with no one telling me to, I hated modern architecture; even at 11, an International Style building of glass and steel depressed and dispirited me, in the same way atonal music or fluorescent light and cigarette smoke in a windowless room did. That was modern, too.

It took a good deal of reading about architectural theory before I began to see the cold beauty of clean lines and reflective glass. Before I developed the most grudging tolerance for it.

Another generation’s example: The art-deco style current in the ’20s and ’30s was reborn in the postmodern era and has been in hipster vogue ever since. My parents never had much use for it; to them, art deco is the very definition of tacky. But art deco was the style overwhelmingly in fashion when they were children.

Along the same lines, “neon” is to them code for cheap, tacky, commercial, overdeveloped. “Getting away from the neon,” was what we did on a successful summer vacation. Neon is today a historic artifact, nearly vanished from the landscape. I know people who enthusiastically collect neon signs and host neon parties. It’s popping back up in some trendy new restaurants. Its weird glow, once commercial noise made visible, is now warm and nostalgic.

Last year, when the 1904 Sprankle building was torn down, the battle lines were drawn along generational lines. The elderly, especially those born within 30 years of its construction, wanted to demolish it; younger folk, declaring it was a sound and handsome building, a five-story beaux-arts apartment building of the sort that still dominates much of Manhattan, and the last of its kind in Knoxville, wanted to buy it, fix it up and live in it. Grayer heads prevailed, led by a retiring bank president, and got their way. Another octogenarian told me he cheered, a year ago, when he saw it gone.

My grandparents, who were still older than that, didn’t have much use for Victorian houses, which seemed to them pretentious, dark, cluttery. To them, any building worth saving was classical in style, preferably antebellum.

While most of us are doomed to idolize the pop music current when we were teenagers as superior to everything before and after, we prefer other architectures. Any other. Newer, sometimes, but especially older. Every generation’s perception of what architecture should be is like a spotlight sweeping the architecture of previous generations.

Now there are younger folks, in their 20s and 30s, who love the architecture I hated as a child. Why? Is it because they don’t remember the passion it took to overthrow it?

Then again. Maybe it’s just that it was an ugly building.