May 20, 2011

As a libertarian, you ought to love the way government buildings are ugly.

I tell Matt Welch:

78 comments:

Fred4Pres said...

The Wisconsin Capitol is not ugly.

For starters.

I could go on and on.

Ann Althouse said...

"The Wisconsin Capitol is not ugly."

Continue with the video, because I have a lot to say about the Wisconsin Capitol right after this point.

Freeman Hunt said...

I hate it when government buildings are over-pretty. What is the point?

This is especially a problem with schools. A lot of people seem to have decided that every K-12 school should be gorgeous. Why? Why should taxpayers pay for that? Do people learn more effectively in pretty buildings?

rhhardin said...

You'd think ugly would be an adverb.

Fred4Pres said...

What are ugly are (mostly) state administrative buildings. God, they are mostly horrible. Cheap costs, too many chefs messing things up, usually leased crap from developers. Most of them relatively recent or going back no earlier than post war. They suck.

I remember Ann finding great examples of such crap on her trip to Albany (for example). But every state captiol has similar examples.

Federal administrative buildings tend to be a wee more substantial (and usually better).

Pre war govenment buildings are usually pretty decent. Even county buildings back then were clad in limestone and made to look substantial. What happened to that civic spirit? I am guessing prevailing wages and out of control costs.

Fred4Pres said...

Those blocks of offices are retangular vomit. Frank Lloyd Wright is glad he is dead not to see it (he saw some of it and knew it was going to be bad).

t-man said...

I have to disagree with you Freeman. Beauty inspires people, and beautiful buildings create a sense of place and pride.

Fred4Pres said...

Freeman, I saw some court house in Vermont still in use. It was early 19th century. Looked like a puritan church. White clapboard. Big wood windows. Plank floors. It certainly was not expensive to build (even today a recreation would have been doable). It was beautiful. The porportions were all golden mean (carpenters in the 19th century followed form books, which is why most old buildings look so good).

Granted a building like that would not meet code, without certain upgrades, but you can make things look great if you take a little time.

I totally agree on school projects that waste all sorts of money on things that we do not even need. I remember Sixty Minutes showed the most pretigious university in India--India Institute of Technology. It had no fancy campus or facilities. Students just got taught by top notch teachers (and they were the best and the brightest of the country). But I digress...

But if you are going to build, there is no point making crap. You can make simple inexpensive buildings, that meet code, that work, and that are beautiful, but without them costing $500 a square foot.

Hagar said...

People often conflate "pretty" with "expensive" and "ugly" with "cheap."
However, in the case of government building at least, this tends to be totally wrong. Government buildings tend to be horrendously expensive and ugly.

Designing a building to "look nice" really only takes a little thought on the part of the architect (and - to be fair - the party controlling the gold, which often is not the entity you think it is), which is not expensive and could actually result in cheaper construction and maintenance costs.
There is also the question of longevity. The pre-war buildings not only looked substantial; they were substantial.

EDH said...

Rectangular Vomit.

Valuable vomit ... Tom Donaghy and Geraldine Malloy break up a large block of grey sperm whale vomit, known as ambergris, at Breaker Bay, on Wellington's south coast...

Also called "whale's pearl" or "floating gold," the sperm whale vomit is more correctly known as ambergris, and is a rare and often valuable ingredient in fine perfumes.

The 40kg lump of ambergris has just been sold to a French company for an undisclosed sum after being discovered last year, The Dominion Post reported.

Picture: Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald
(scroll down)

AFG said...

Buildings you call ugly I call beautiful. Anyone care to argue?

CachorroQuente said...

Libertarianism is all about individual liberty and rights and about limited government. A government that creates ugly buildings isn't any more in keeping with libertarian principles than is a government that creates pretty buildings. It's not any cheaper to build ugly crap and it's not any less of an imposition on individual rights. If anything it's an insult to libertarian values: the government can take your money without your consent and build the architectural equivalent of an oozing puss-filled sore and there's nothing you can do about it. Of course, those who burst into tears when confronted with a principled argument may not understand this.

Chip Ahoy said...

I like the idea of painting Washington in original classical colors in place of the bleached out ghosts of classical style that people imagine classical was.

Egyptian architecture and statuary was very colorful too but that is a lot easier to imagine.

Freeman Hunt said...

One of our local public high schools. (We have two.) It looks like a college. Is that necessary? Are the kids smarter because of that?

Freeman Hunt said...

That particular high school, by the way, was a bargain.

In the next town over, they wanted to spend $100 million on a new high school. Yow!

windbag said...

We are on our third SS Admin. building since we moved here 23 years ago. Latest one to be abandoned is on prime retail space, worth God-only-knows how much. Gov't. offices should be housed in the cheapest available space, NOT built brand new.

Franklin said...

I don't have a problem with beautiful government buildings - government should do very few things, but those things that they do, they should do well.

Revenant said...

As a small-L libertarian I don't think the government should spend money making government buildings pretty -- but making them ugly on purpose would be dumb. You can make a reasonably attractive building for the same price as an ugly one.

The functions the government SHOULD be performing should be performed in whatever manner gives the best value for the money spent.

Franklin said...

What I mean to say is that libertarians don't hate government - indeed, libertarians understand that government is necessary to protect our rights and freedoms. Anarchism is an entirely different philosophy.

That's what Liberals can never seem to understand about libertarians.

edutcher said...

The rectangular vomit was designed by Socialists (and probably more than a few Communists) for their use. I don't think these people have any real concept of beauty in the aesthetic sense. The barf is just there for the exercise of power, with no thought to any visually appealing qualities.

Buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries were designed by people who used the Greeks and Romans as their inspiration. They also were still working under a Constitution that was much loved and appreciated and was also an inspiration, symbolizing the highest aspirations of the nation, rather than something which could be cherry-picked to produce a justification for whatever outrage the Lefties wanted to inflict on the country.

chickenlittle said...

@Freeman: What kind of name is "Har-Ber"?

What is that name harboring?

wv = "doushies" lol!

Fred4Pres said...

19th century public buildings were intended to be public spaces. Used by the public. Civic cathedrals with adjacent public lands. We have gotten away from that over concerns of security, cost, and other factors.

It is sad.

And as for schools, they can be beautiful and affordable. Kids just need basic shelter from the elements. An education is based what is taught, not what it is taught in. Still, the basic shelter need not be ugly.

t-man said...

"Bleached out ghosts of classical style"

I like that a lot, Chip.


"Sophisticated people" would decry the real classical style as tacky.

Phil 3:14 said...

It's not any cheaper to build ugly crap and it's not any less of an imposition on individual rights.

I would bet you could build a pretty large empty space (think of one of those big box stores) and put a lot of cubicles into it and spend a lot less money.

And I'd better a strict libertarian would more concerned with the number of ugly government buildings (not to mention the number of employees, the number of regulations generated, the budgets etc.)

PS Does the Pentagon qualify as an angular, low slung building?

Phil 3:14 said...

blogger continues to frustrate me

Phil 3:14 said...

Oh and I forgot to mention one of both of you on this blogginheads dissed the Albany state capitol,

Hey, I resent that. Its not the traditional domed capital but that doesn't mean its ugly.

You all should also consider the New Mexico and Nebraska state capitol buildings

DADvocate said...

Not sure why there would be a correlation between libertarianism and ugly government buildings. Is it part of libertarianism to reject beauty and demand all government buildings be quonset huts?

Obviously, you can go to far either way but there's no need for ugly buildings. Libertarians are moer concerned about government control over individuals and restriction of rights. Architecture only becomes an issue when the expense is excessive.

Hagar said...

Freeman,
That high school is neither pretty nor an "inspiring learning environment."

It is just an empire builder's dream.

You need to look at what has happened in our public education system over the last 50-60 years. We are no longer building neighborhood schools for our children. The "education establishment" has used integration and bussing to build these mega-schools that look more like medium security state prisons than college campuses and make a horrible environment to dump our children into.
But the educationists can provide all sorts of services the parents - never mind the students - never asked for, and can set up a hierarchical controlled environment according to their own notions.
Welcome to the Brave New World!

Beth said...

One of our favorite travel games, in the tradition of spotting license plates or Slug Bug or Cow!, is "High School, or Prison?"

Sometimes we have to get right up on it to know, particularly if the school has a high fence. The determining factor is the presence or absence of razor wire. Guard towers? Some high schools have 'em. Gyms, tennis courts? Some prisons have 'em.

Fred4Pres said...

Freeman, hard to tell from just the rendering, but that is a relatively simple (and banal) looking school. It looks like it is going to be a school for about 2000 students (I am guessing)? It is basically a few big rectangles, a grecian-georgian portico, a few hip roofs, and some brick facade?

Talking about expensive high schools...

Stadium High, which was featured in 10 Things I hate About You, was not intended to be a high school. It was a luxury hotel that failed and the city converted it into a high school. Which is something perhaps we should consider in the current economic climate.

Given we have empty subdivisions, why not make each house a single class room? Crazy? Why not? Better than those cheap modular trailers that some schools use to create additional classrooms.

Fred4Pres said...

Now this is a kick ass school.

Chip S. said...

I agree with CachorroQuente and Franklin. Libertarians are not anti-government per se; they're against government intervention in areas best left to private choice.

There are potentially big aesthetic spillovers from architecture, and the design of public buildings ought to recognize that. The Stalinist eyesore that is the NY state government complex just makes it even more painful to contemplate what goes on inside. And I don't think it was cheap to build, either.

Fred4Pres said...

Hagar, spot on.

Freeman, that Frank Lloyd Wright elementary school would not be expensive to build. Immagine if neighborhood schools looked like that?

Freeman Hunt said...

A map of that high school with a football field for scale. (The high school is what Google thinks is a middle school.) It is huge. At my earlier link, you can see the inside. The exterior pictures capture only a tiny part of it.

Hagar said...

Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings that looked nice - most of them perhaps - but were expensive to build, difficult and expensive to maintain, and not that comfortable to live or work in.

The modular trailers are indeed ugly and not really that cheap, but the teachers like them, because they can make it difficult for "the administrators" to harass them, so they have more freedom to treat and teach their students as individuals.

Hagar said...

Hot in the summers and cold in the winters, but hey, teaching is what we like to do.

Freeman Hunt said...

Buildings Don't Teach Kids, People Do

Freeman Hunt said...

Fred, I was surprised to see Little Rock's Central High on that list of beautiful schools.

CachorroQuente said...

I like the Wyoming school that Fred linked to. Also, I think that this is an attractive building. Though I didn't realize it when I attended. My recollection is that MHS was built sometime around 1935 +/-.

Freeman Hunt said...

Beautiful high school. Hideous website.

Fred4Pres said...

Hagar, I disagree about FLW. Wright's houses tended to be expensive due to them being hand crafted and having very nice finishes and details (most of his clients were wealthy and the homes reflected that).

That elementary school, which was a gift done by him in memory of his mother, was not expensive (the finishes are rather basic) and could be reproduced relatively inexpensively.

Most of Wright's homes were reported to be very comfortable to live in. But he did have some that had problems (leaks, etc.) and Wright loved to blame everyone but himself when something went wrong.

I am not sure why the Little Rock School is designated as "beautiful." Historic, for sure, but it does not look so great.

George said...

I'm with you Freeman, public school districts have gone crazy with both new builds and remodels. The district wanted to remodel the HS my sons attended $100 million. They had all the facilities they needed (gym, theatre, auditotuem, etc) and there was no overcrowding...thankfully the referendum failed. But they say hey will try again....

Fred4Pres said...

Freeman, why bother making a website if it is going to be that ugly?

Freeman Hunt said...

I went to this high school for a while. That picture is of the dorm. It looks like an old hospital because it is.

Fred4Pres said...

And I agree school budgets should be affordable. Money does not ensure beautiful building. Architects should be chosen because they have talent, not because they are some designated low bidder or have kissed up to the school district officials.

Freeman Hunt said...

Freeman, why bother making a website if it is going to be that ugly?

I thought I'd found some impostor website at first. That can't be their real website...

ET1492 said...

With all the vacant real estate around, governments ought to consider buying or leasing available space rather than building new. It solves multiple problems.

Ricardo said...

I don't mean this as anything other than a comment on clothing. But why is it that women feel a compulsion to wrap scarves around their necks? We see this a lot with high-powered woman executives, where the thing is not only around their neck, but also covers part of their shoulder. What void or emptiness are they attempting to fill (sartorially, speaking). What's with the foulard?

Fred4Pres said...

That website is so ugly, it is almost like they tried to make it ugly and banal.

ET1492 said...

"We see this a lot with high-powered woman"

Throat tattoos are frowned upon in the corporate world.

Ricardo said...

"Throat tattoos are frowned upon in the corporate world."

That's actually a great answer, that I hadn't thought about. Thank you!

Brennan said...

Scarves are to women what Calvin pissing on a window sticker is to men.

Michael said...

I believe we are conflating cost and aesthetics. If we are going to waste money at the Govt. level we should at least waste it on something both lasting and beautiful. It is difficult to get the latter when the selection of architects is as political as any other thing the govt. does and thus we get expensive crap, often intentionally ugly to make some point about life in Amerika.

Fred4Pres said...

I went to meet a friend at a local bar and the bartender was a super attrative woman...who had a few neck tattoos.

It was like putting graffiti on a work of art.

You have such a narrow window of being attractive like that. It is all down hill from there. Why screw it up?

Fred4Pres said...

What was the point of spelling America with a "k."

howzerdo said...

I’ve been crazy busy and haven’t visited in a while. When I finally do, I find you are dissing Albany again! Sigh.

I feel compelled to defend the Capital District. It's a lovely place with wonderful people.

"Albany" is better understood with a side of history and another of politics. The State Capitol had a lot of architects by the time Governor Roosevelt opened it in 1899. In the end it turned out to be a fine example of Richardson Romanesque.

In 1911, a fire destroyed the NYS library, which was housed in the Capitol building. Remarkably, the Dutch records were one thing that did not completely burn. It is rumored that the night watchman, who was the only person to die in the fire, haunts the Capitol.

I’m never certain whether you are reacting to the State Capitol, or to its neighbor, Empire State Plaza. Empire State Plaza is Rockefeller’s vision of utopia manifested as art and architecture. It is best viewed from across the Hudson River, as part of the skyline.

Hagar said...

Fred4Pres,

It is a big no-no for either architects or engineers to submit bids, since we are supposed to be selected strictly on merit (i.e "credentials").

We do submit "Proposals" in response to "Requests for Propsals" (RFP's), but fees are not to be mentioned (Lawsy, no!) until after the "Selection" is made.

Bruce Hayden said...

Why might a libertarian lean towards ugly government buildings?

First, some of the beauty that we find in government buildings costs a lot of money. Libertarians are into lower governmental expenditures, which includes beautifying government buildings at public expense.

Secondly, buildings are a reflection of the entity that builds or owns them. Beautiful buildings might glorify the government. Not something that libertarians are into.

Fred4Pres said...

Hagar, unfortuntely a lot of crappy architects seem to get the gigs. Or they are the "school architect" so they get all the schools. So they all look the same and they mostly suck or are middling (with the occasional suprise good one).

Hagar said...

Crappy engineers get the gigs too, but that is how bureaucracy works.

And quite frequently the client will proceed to tell the "Design Professional" how to do the design in quite detailed fashion. I know of at least one Federal Building where the Architect would not allow them to put his name on the building plaque.
"Who controls the gold gets to rule!"

Chip S. said...

There's a much better way than ugliness to make government buildings less expensive--have some shovel-ready construction plans prepared for recessions. It's much cheaper to build when nobody else is building than to do it when there's already a lot of activity.

I get mildly annoyed when people say things like, "As a libertarian, you ought to like/dislike ...." As a libertarian, I feel perfectly able to determine my own specific policy preferences without other people's help. For example, I'm fine with having the government paint lane markers on the roads; I even prefer that the lines be painted carefully. That doesn't mean that I want to ban Happy Meals, restrict campaign spending, or nationalize the steel industry.

Foobarista said...

A rule on universities: the humanities buildings are pretty, the hard science and engineering buildings are ugly. I even have a bit of a theory on this: the humanities buildings are older and were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries when buildings were allowed to look cool, while the engineering and science buildings were built after 1950 or so when various forms of uglyism were the architectural rage.

Ralph L said...

Ricardo, women are genetically disposed to decorate everything. Also, the neck shows one's age even in low light.

North Carolina's small, stately Capitol houses just the governor's office (and a bust of my g-g-grandfather). The legislature meets in a hideous 60's box.

It seems like every non-big-city school has been rebuilt in the last 20 years. All that for handicapped access, I guess.

ET1492 said...

What about monuments? They are pure ornament.

Alex said...

In other news:

Prosser wins recount

Well that only took about a 1000 years.

Sixty Grit said...

And Ralph L - how about that fugly Wake County courthouse - what a freakin' mess.

It's taken me a while to warm up to the capitol, understand the square columns at the base of the Greek Revival columns, just don't like them. That could have been better handled.

Next time I am in the building, I'll look for your great-great-grandfather's bust.

Hagar said...

In the priceless category.

One of the last issues of Life had a spread on architects and their works, including a picture of a burned out building with a disconsolate architect sitting out front mourning that the University would not re-build his magnum opus after the fire. A math and physics building, I think.
It seems the dpartments threatened to resign in a body if the University tried to move them back into that building.

bagoh20 said...

Anything worth doing is worth doing right. So as a libertarian I want them to look good, function well, and be built economically. Government rarely pulls off more than one - and often none - of those.

blake said...

So as a libertarian I want them to look good, function well, and be built economically.

I don't think we can even get two of those. Pick any none of them.

PaulV said...

Thomas Jefferson started it with Monticello, VA state capital and his university (Rotunda, lawn, etc.)

andinista said...

Most everything a government does is "it's a dirty job, but somebody got's to do it". (Not parks and forests. That's cool work making people happy.)

These people we hire to do these dirty jobs, they're won't do them well if the digs are low-rent and shoddy.

OTOH, they're still just dirty jobs. Important, sure, but they don't need palaces. None of the guys Mike Rowe shows on TV live and work in palaces, and they're happy.

Probably 90% of what the govmt does, can be done in regular commercial office buildings at standard $/sqft. The legislature and guvnr don't need no stinking palace. Criminal justice and defense need special purpose facilities.

Us taxpayers work in regular buildings of various quality. Seems like the tax spenders shouldn't have it any better. And maybe a little worse, like any normal cost center.

Penny said...

"Ricardo, women are genetically disposed to decorate everything. Also, the neck shows one's age even in low light."

This scarf thing has nothing to do with old age. It's an accessory, not unlike a man's tie actually.

Scarves have come and gone over the years, and right now, are in vogue... Most likely because the fashion industry can make a few extra bucks, and more power to them for figuring that out.

Aren't buildings just the same? No expert on architecture, but I assume that with rare exception, buildings mimic what seems to be "in vogue" when they are built.

Fred said...

The Parthenon -- particularly ugly...

Jeff said...

As a Libertarian, I think this is a largely an argument should be “kicked down the road” about 20-40 years. The problem of ugly government buildings would get better by itself. If we were following libertarian, small government principles we would not need new government buildings. We have too many of them now filled with people doing things for us, that we don’t need done to us.

Therefore, we could tear down the ugliest buildings and keep the prettiest ones. Then when the surplus of government buildings is used up, or other buildings must be replaced, we can all debate the esthetics then. Although, this is an unlikely scenario anytime soon.

Willys said...

Government offices should be cubicles arranged row on row in non-descript warehouse facilities. It works for call centers in the U.S., it can work for government.

Beldar said...

@ Prof. Althouse: I commend you for these sorts of discussions and debates, and for making them available for others to watch.

Watching, though, is a luxury. Many are willing and able to invest the required time, and find that justified by the advantages of video over a bare transcript.

But others of us aren't going to watch a full discussion on video even when we're intrigued -- as I am by the title of this post -- about one line, or one part, of it.

Without transcripts or, at a minimum, time specifications for the parts you want to highlight, much of your effort is wasted, I fear.

Alan said...

Separated at birth:

Dallas City Hall

http://www.bluffton.edu/~Sullivanm/texas/dallas/cityhall/angledistant.jpg

Jawa sandcrawler

http://www.fantastic-plastic.com/SandcrawlerSPFX.jpg

Strelnikov said...

Regardless of exterior appearances, most government buildings, and particularly recently constructed judicial digs, are lavish inside. If we truly want to make government "service" less attractive to the lifers it currently attracts the solution is simple: all government buildings should be quonset huts.