Why Did America Destroy Its Own Cities?

And how to make them beautiful again...

The lost communities of Kansas City

America didn’t always build ugly cities. As you tour Philadelphia’s historic landmarks or gaze up at New York’s early skyscrapers, you can’t help but wonder…

Why don’t all American cities boast beauty like this?

When did ugliness take over, and more importantly, why did it happen?

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Artists Gone Mad

The since-demolished Erie County Savings Bank building, Buffalo, NY (1908)

Sir Christopher Wren, a leading British architect of the 17th century, said that public buildings are “the ornament of a country”. Architecture “establishes a Nation, draws people and commerce, makes the people love their native country.”

The consensus of history is clear. Public buildings — including buildings that dominate a city, even if not owned by the government — have the power to:

  • Grow a city’s economy

  • Foster pride in one’s community

  • Inspire a loving relationship between residents and their city

With these truths in mind, American architects created breathtaking buildings that became pillars of American identity. Think of the Capitol Building, Philadelphia’s Second Bank of the United States, or the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland — to name just a few. 

Then, something happened. 

The 1950s saw a rise in a new kind of design. The brutalist style that emerged as a postwar solution to the puzzle of cheap, easily-erected housing (as well as being the architectural cousin to the blooming philosophy of socialism), began to take hold. 

Architectural elitists scoffed at traditional designs and began to replace them with new constructions that were decidedly avant-garde.

The public pushed back. In fact, the new buildings were so unpopular that by 1994, the General Services Administration, which was responsible for these new works of architecture, could no longer ignore the public outcry. It responded by launching a “Design Excellence Program” to ensure a higher quality of buildings for the American public. 

Unfortunately, the results of this program didn’t fare much better. The San Francisco Federal Building, for instance, is so bizarre that it almost defies analysis. It’s no surprise that San Franciscans deride it as the ugliest building to deface their Golden City…

The San Francisco Federal Building (2007)

So why did America rush to create such unattractive buildings? In the words of the San Francisco Federal Building’s architect: he set out to create “art for art’s sake.”

America’s first great buildings were built for the very purpose of inspiring a citizen to love, respect, and be inspired by his city. That motivation gave way in the 20th century to the myopic desire to create “artistic” architecture — regardless of how it affected those who used it.

Cultures are often wiser than people. When America exchanged its traditional architecture for the inspirations of selfish artists, all that resulted was the creation of monuments to individual egos.

Cult of Efficiency

The misguided artistry of modernism isn’t the only thing eroding American cities. There’s a far more deeply ingrained factor of American identity that is destroying beauty: efficiency. 

Efficiency itself is no bad thing. America’s industrial prowess propelled her to the status of world superpower less than two hundred years after becoming a country.

However, while military and industrial efficiency may have made America a power on the world stage, applying efficiency to architecture became her Achilles’ heel.

Architecture throughout human history shows that what you build is who you are. Just like other art forms, from sculpture to storytelling, architecture is a tangible manifestation of what a culture honors. And when a material concern like efficiency begins to reign as the supreme value, a culture has likely abandoned transcendent values and enslaved itself to lesser things.

In American architecture, the cult of efficiency looks like:

  • Freeways instead of streets

  • Strip malls instead of historic shops

  • Mass-housing apartment buildings instead of homes

Quintessentially American urban features testify to the nation’s love of getting places fast and getting things done. Other countries chose walking-friendly towns and small shops; America chose hyper-efficient drive-thrus, mega-highways, and big box stores.

But it wasn’t all built on empty space.

One infamous example of “efficiency” took place in Kansas City. Amidst a frenzy of industrialization in the 1940s, the city launched a decades-long project of freeway construction, demolishing huge swathes of the existing city in the process. In some areas, the destruction earned the nickname “the Kansas City blitz,” equating it to what World War II visited upon London. 

Kansas City: entire communities cleared for the interstate

Historic downtown areas and green spaces alike were chewed up as the ravenous highway snaked through the city.

Ironically, in its breakneck pursuit of efficiency, Kansas City actually sacrificed what would today be some of its most profitable real estate. The downtown buildings, had they not been demolished, would be worth around $655 million today.

Even while brutalism’s artistic influence (and that of its ugly cousins, modernism and postmodernism) slowly fades, efficiency continues to reign. Fast food drive-thrus show no signs of slowing down. And with housing and property prices leaping upwards, there is little expendable room in budgets for buildings that are anything more than functional.

Make America Beautiful Again

It can be hard to imagine what an architecturally beautiful America would look like. Fortunately, the U.S. does have a history of design excellence to call its own: Art Deco.

In America’s earliest years, it relied heavily on classical architecture. Greek columns adorned many public buildings, while others used impressive stone and arches.

As America matured, though, it caught hold of a new design emerging in Paris. This lavish style added bold geometric decoration to everything from skyscrapers to jewelry, earning it the name arts décoratifs. The style caught on across the Atlantic, and Art Deco went on to define a good part of America’s 20th century.

Art Deco drew inspiration from the world of the classics: powerful vertical lines recall columns, and Greek figures frequently appear, like Prometheus dominating the Rockefeller Center. Yet it also incorporated elements of Modernism and historical French interior design, as well as influences from far-flung ancient Egypt, Persia, Mesoamerica and China.

The “Neo-Mayan” lobby of 450 Sutter Street, San Francisco (1929)

In essence, it was Greek dominance remixed to the beats of the Jazz Age — the perfect expression of an ascendant American culture. Architecture for an age of optimism.

More than anything, Art Deco proved that America could take its core qualities — mass culture, technological progress, aggressive boldness, and luxury — and channel them into a genuinely beautiful style. 

That’s what makes Art Deco a touchstone for those who want to see America made beautiful again. European cities may be awe-inspiring, but it’s difficult to copy-and-paste the architecture of one place to another that doesn’t share the same culture and history. Instead, designers can find ways to transform America’s unique qualities into architecture that stays true to its roots. 

Demand Beauty

I'On, South Carolina

In his insightful book The Story of Architecture, Jonathan Glancey summarizes America’s aesthetic history: 

“New technologies have allowed architects to practice their art with ever greater dexterity,” he writes, “but also to make more mistakes than were possible in the time of the pyramids or Stonehenge.”

We’re left with the question: can America recover from modern architecture’s mistakes?

In some ways, it’s already doing so. Intentional communities like I’On, South Carolina, are pushing back on the pressure to design cities with maximum efficiency. Instead, they’re creating streets, homes, and public spaces on a human scale, and making beauty a priority.

One of the advantages of America is that there’s not just one single mode of architecture to be reclaimed. The country’s “melting pot” of cultures is perfect for creating a naturally organic variety of vernacular architecture. 

What will it take for America to become “the beautiful” again? One major element will be architects that prioritize the human need for beauty over the desire to shock, awe, and impress — as well as companies willing to back design projects that go above and beyond glass and concrete blocks. 

But there’s only one way for this to happen: public demand. 

That’s where you come in. You can be part of the tipping point that makes America re-prioritize public beauty. It all starts by cultivating beauty in your own life — and then demanding it on the stage of our shared culture. 

Thank you for reading.

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Art of the Week

Snap the Whip, Winslow Homer (1872)

At first glance, Snap the Whip isn’t as visually stunning as some other works of art. It even pales in comparison to the drama of Homer’s other paintings, most of which are energetic seascapes.

However, it does capture something unique. It’s an exemplar of 19th-century American realism, a style that encompassed both art and literature to portray American life in its unadorned simplicity. Literary classics like Tom Sawyer and The Red Badge of Courage also fall into this category.

Homer’s painting reflects the straightforwardness of rural American culture: raw, yet deeply poignant. Fresh colors leap off the page so energetically that you can almost smell the summer flowers. The boys’ forward momentum echoes the progress that America felt in its bones: confident and unstoppable.

Yet there’s more to the story than celebrating progress. Even as Homer painted the scene, one-room schoolhouses like the one in the background were beginning to fade into history. The stumbling boy at the end of the line warns that the country’s hectic energy might lead to unexpected difficulty. 

The picture is a memory of simple times gone by, but with no guarantee that they’ll be repeated. Progress may be good, but it’s never worth rushing past the joy of the present: that’s one American artist’s insight to his fellow compatriots, and one that remains relevant a century and a half later.

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