And Now A Post Entirely Unrelated to the Election or Proposition 8! Yippee!

Why is it that vast concrete plazas look so cool in architectural drawings and paintings, yet so damn depressing in real life?


(Question inspired by architectural drawings here)

60 Comments on “And Now A Post Entirely Unrelated to the Election or Proposition 8! Yippee!”

  1. And why do trees seem to make sense in architectural drawings, yet end up looking sad and sickly when stuck into said concrete plazas?

  2. Because on a flat two-dimensional surface the vast emptiness serves as negative space that directs the eye to, and frames, the cool building concept or other subject focal point.

    In real life the emptiness reminds you of your transiency and that you are a tiny bug on the windshield of existence and a merciless eldritch squeegee is headed your way.

  3. They look cool due to the angle photographers shoot, and what kind of lenses they use.

    It always makes me sad when I have to go to the Architecture Library on campus to photocopy an article for some poor sap at another university, and I see these cool photos, and I’m like, “No, not really.”

  4. I’m not sure I can answer your question, but I have a more pressing one now that I’ve looked at those pictures:


    I can’t even visually parse the third one. All I can say is that if I ever saw a building like that in real life, the concrete plain surrounding it would be the least of my concerns.

  5. I blame scale models, myself. I remember once, on a temp job on the 20th floor, looking down on a concrete plaza which I knew to be a barren, repellent mockery of a public space, and not recognizing it at first, ‘cos it looked really pretty. When you put the scale model of your proposed skyscraper on a low table for the client, everyone’s looking down from the height of gods. I wonder what would happen if you put designs in a gamespace of some nature, where the client had to navigate a tiny human through the proposed building? Might get different results.

  6. Because the concrete in the drawing is often drawn on smooth, glossy, paper?

    And real concrete is rough, pocked, non-glossy, whatever?

    Not to mention, you can draw reflections on paper that jump out of the page, while in real life, they usually come across as fuzzy with faded colors.

    Mostly, I think it comes down to the lines and shapes in the drawing match reality, but the colors, textures, gloss, shine, sparkles, reflections, etc in the drawing don’t match the real world.

    Do I win a fish?

  7. What Jeff at # 2 said. Also, the drawing shows you the whole, which is cool, seen from a safe distance. Once you’re in the plaza, you only see the concrete stretching all around you, reflecting light, and providing little or no variation in form when viewed from that perspective. Dull, and it hurts the eyes.

  8. Concrete looks posh and clean when freshly set, but over the years accumulates soot from exhaust, atmospheric gunk, all the sorts of stuff that is also going into your lungs aiieee. So as time progresses your futuristic monument to minimalism and tasteful restraint turns into a dehumanising nightmare of faux-Soviet cubes.

  9. I think it’s because they get dull over time. The Fisheries Building at the University of Washington is basically a giant hunk of concrete, but for some reason (maybe the rain?) it’s shiny and uplifting to look at. Although that wouldn’t explain why the same thing is true of the inside.

    Anyhow, probably because it’s not reflective over long periods of time would be my guess.

  10. I remember when they put up the music museum in Seattle. Looked great on paper, but turned out like a giant heap of colorful trash, when erected. The new Seattle library was kinda like that too: looked great on paper, but when erected, had a too-sterile feel to it, and the interior… Truly, I have never had a weirder time navigating a library! It’s like a funhouse. Without the fun.

    Now, as for the actual drawings cited at the start of the thread, I think a case can be made for simplicity.

    The new Salt Lake City downtown library seems to strike a good balance between concrete modernism, and open-air, organic “warmth” that invites, rather than repels.

    See pics here, here, here, and here.

    Of course, fine architecture, like fine art, is a pure matter of taste. I’ve always rather liked the overly-modern designs that have been coming out, and barring the Seattle Music Experience — which is truly a craptastic design IMHO — even a confusing interior lay-out can be overcome by a theme that is futuristic to the point of seeming “spacey” or otherwise of the future, yet existing in the present.

    Funny part is, in fifty to seventy years, my grandkids or great grandkids will think all these designs look “old” and quaint, in the same way many of us now view the brick-facade highrises of the early 20th century.

  11. I believe it’s because in architectural models and drawings, the view is always from above and it provides a nice negative space to balance the buildings against, but when you’re on the ground it just feels bleak, sterile, and oppressive. You can’t actually do anything useful in such a space, and that feeling is pretty irritating to many people. The space isn’t for people in the space, only for people above it.

  12. I agree with Fletcher @ 8. A brand-new runway or piece of concrete highway is smooth, clean, monolithic and beautiful. After a few months or years, it becomes depressing.

    Another thing that contributes to the ugliness is weeds in the cracks. It’s hard to stay ahead of all the weeds on a really big expanse of concrete that is just for looking at or walking across.

  13. I have a completely unproven theory involving the dynamic range of the human eye (which sees candleflame and the Sun as roughly the same colour, but knows the difference in intensity) and the illustration, which emphatically Does Not. Also, that third pic looks like a pseudo-HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, whereby multiple exposures are used to bring out all the “Zing!” and “Pang!” while eradicating the “meh” and “bleh”.

    Angular modern materials? Smashing. Just not in any setting that’s consonant with light levels anywhere on the planet.

  14. It’s all entriely possible that Kazakhstan would end looking like a city from the Jetsons or Back to the Future II, without anybody knowing what’s going on there. Really. Would anyone be surprised if they did actually have that launch pad from Contact already built there? I wouldn’t!

  15. A concrete plaza is hot, sticky and deadening. Also very loud. The drawing you cite shows a plaza that is *much* larger than the building, which is hellish in practice. In the dark, a bare stretch of concrete ends up with patchy lighting, which makes women feel unsafe… because their eyes are neither dark nor light adapted and an attacker has a strong advantage over them. Broad open spaces also favor night lighting that throws light up and out, which adds to light pollution.

    A well designed plaza has trees. Real trees, that provide shade. It also has benches, water fountains, bike parking and artwork that is at least as nice to look at as a tree. This does not cook people in summer, and is relatively pleasant in winter or windy seasons. And it needs to be human size, so that the humans don’t cry at the thought of walking across it. Because the space is broken up, it is easier to make it feel safe at night via good lighting. The smaller scale space benefits a lot from well shaded lighting, so there’s less light pollution.

    And well, drawing a *real* plaza takes work. The bare concrete looks pretty, and doesn’t take half the effort (or thought).

  16. Scott, OMG, ha ha ha!

    Yah, the EMP… Dunno what they were thinking with that one.

    Overall, Seattle sports some pretty nice-looking “modern” architecture. I always liked the view coming up from the south, or down from the north, along I-5. Two Union Square, the Columbia Building, the WaMu building — is it still the WaMu building if WaMu is gone now? — Seattle Municipal Tower… Very cool-looking stuff, and it was fun to walk among those “giants” when I worked there.

    On a tangential note, can anyone please explain to me why the NBA insists that Key Arena is unfit for pro basketball? That’s a great arena! Narry a bad seat in the house IMHO!

  17. Another thing: the vast concrete spaces in the drawings are always full of people, making them look like festive squares. The actual concrete spaces are… not festive. They tend to be full of discarded newspaper and bums.

    @Sub-Odeon: Why all the hate for Seattle’s EMP? I like it, but I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one. It’s colorful, expressive, and bizarre, just like its contents. The library, OTOH, really is awful. It’s an Escherian un-library, designed explicitly to prevent you from walking in, finding a good book, and snuggling into a corner. What else is it good for, then?

  18. I’m not surprised at all the library comments either. My profession is noted for struggling with architects to preserve the human factors for people within the structure. I once was at a design meeting where the term “the architectonics of the design…” in which the context was the visceral thrill of people entering the new structure. Yeah. Well.. Seattle PL is among one of the most often noted ‘trouble’ designs of libraries. It’s the trouble of people wanting to point to a object d’art built from public money. The best libraries in my experience blend into the background, make it easy to come in and have a seat, and do whatever you need to do. The one way escalator in Seattle really puts me off.

  19. To see the moral bankruptcy of modern architecture as demonstrated by Le Corbusier, one of its grand priests, google for “Corbusier Plan Voisin” and his plan to raze half of Paris to replace it with a grid of Stalinesque concrete apartment blocks.

  20. J.S. Bangs,

    (LOL) I think the EMP is actually interesting, up-close. As seen from the freeway en route to downtown, after you cross the I-5 bridge, the EMP seems like a cluttered heap of glass and metal.

    Seen from the air, the EMP has no coherent style. It’s a mish-mash. Maybe that’s intentional, because of the purpose of the museum, but visually I have always found the mish-mash to be hurtful on my personal architectural aesthetic. JMHO.

    Meanwhile, the library… Oh wow, it took me two hours once to find a book I know I could have found in five minutes at a plain old boring neighborhood branch. Yikes. The only thing I could recommend about the Seattle downtown library was the free wireless and the desks down on the main level where you could park and pull out a laptop. Otherwise, the actual book-seeking experience was… Poor to horrible.

  21. I think it’s a resolution problem.

    Specifically, the real world comes to us at a higher resolution than drawings.

    Also, you know, the sky’s all blue and stuff.

  22. The third After shot looks like a sand crawler from Star Wars. (Or at least it does to me.)

  23. @Sub-Odeon: I’ll grant that from the freeway the EMP is a shiny, lumpy blob. I’ve never seen it from the air, so I won’t comment. But of course, walking around it is the way that most people experience the building, and at that level I think it’s interesting and fun. It definitely succeeds at that level.

  24. A painfully smart person named Jane Jacobs wrote a great book, called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” about this very thing (well, not about the difference between drawings and reality, but it does explain why these plazas are so depressing.) When architects design public spaces like this, they assume that the mere existence of such a space will make people want to use it. But Jacobs observes that unless a space has a number of specific uses that draw a wide variety of people throughout the day, then they become abandoned. It’s the presence of people that makes these places interesting. Once the people go away, these plazas get kinda bleak.

  25. Concrete plazas bad because concrete dull? I don’t think it’s much better when the plaza is polished marble. See the Blue Mosque in Afghanistan:

    Perhaps it wouldn’t be as stark if there were greenery. I like Persian gardens with terraces, plantings, streams, and pools.

  26. Dang, I put in the URL for the [url=]Blue Mosque[/url] but I didn’t do it in the right format. Will this work?

  27. Concrete doesn’t look like nice, smooth, white bristol paper in real life.
    Especially if it’s raining, there is nothing more depressing than a concrete building/plaza when it rains.
    Even metal has a sort of warmth to it that concrete doesn’t seem to possess at all.

  28. Wow. The death rate will be astonishingly high – there’s all those high balconies with no safety rails. Oh, wait, that’s a sectional view that no-one will ever see in real life. The exterior shots are all fakelight and high polish, think of it as the “extreme radioactive makeover” view of the thing, or perhaps what it would look like if they made it out of glass and polished it every night.

    Normally the problem is point of view, yes, but also ambience.

    Architectural pictures are all about the brand new shininess of the wonderful architecture, not about the messy people who infest actual buildings and public spaces. My SO is an harchatect so I get to play with old models sometimes. They look very different once you add people, cars, bicycles, shopping trolleys, rubbish bins and advertising. Even though it’s all still new and clean, once there’s the designed level of use things start to look very cluttered and messy.

    The average concrete death zone, sorry “public space”, looks quite nice in pictures because you don’t get the cold wind funnelled through it or the ugly way traffic noise bounces off the walls to compete with a spruiker or busker. Add in outdoor seating for a cafe or two, some signs outside shops and the inevitable clusters of smokers and the picture starts to look ugly.

    Look at the before and after views – a row of grotty trees degraded by motor vehicles. The new one is not just shiny, but somehow we’re seeing it from 100m up in the air and 500m away (looking through the building across the street I suspect).

    Where I lived (Sydney, Australia) they “redevloped” Taylor Square to beautify it (translation: get rid of the homeless) by killing the trees, paving it all over and adding one of those awful foutains that spurt up from the pavement and drain through metal grilles. Well, they do if there’s no wind, but in practice it just adds a random cold shower to what has become a pedestrian-hostile place at the best of times. No shelter from the two busy roads it’s at the intersection of, no shade, just a few uncomfortable metal seats and some overflowing rubbish bins. But the architectual drawings looked wonderful – soft, warm light, lots of clean lines and no messy bits.

  29. A Seattle friend’s description always struck me as particularly astute: the EMP looks like the discarded packaging that the Space Needle came in.

    Scary concrete plazas: If you’re ever in Albany, check out the Empire State Plaza from the direction of the state capitol. It looks like it was expressly designed for Darth Vader to review the troops. And I don’t think it’s possible to see the four identical buildings along the right side and not think, “Ministry of Truth, Minstry of Peace, Ministry of Plenty, Ministry of Love.”

  30. You know, mostly, they make for good meeting places.

    Like when I was meeting a friend in Manhattan and he said “Meet me by the giant red block near Wall & Broadway”

    It serves no other purpose than to give a good visual reference. You walk down Broadway thinking ‘red cube’, and lo and behold, you know where you are supposed to meet.

  31. Speaking of bad architecture, may I just say that I think America’s churches offer some of the most horrible examples of design. Especially anything built between about 1960 and 1975. Just awful. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same era also birthed the split-level suburban home?

  32. Moz wrote: The average concrete death zone, sorry “public space”,

    Death zone! Apt. Very.

  33. Scott, I’ve heard of that book online, and it sounds interesting.

    I live in a town built (recently) on New Urbanist principles, and I’ve always thought my town jibes well with what I’ve heard of Jacobs’s work.

    I’m with Sarah M. I literally can’t parse that first image at all.

  34. OMG, compare those nightmares to the “museum campus” in Chicago–the Shedd Aquarium, the planetarium, and the natural history museum. They are on Lake Michigan and surrounded by lovely green space. It would be dreadful if it was all concrete.

    When my kids were little, they loved running around the museums and rolling down the hills.

    Not every city has a Great Lake, but they can have grass & trees in the plaza areas.

    The BBC has an article on the health benefits of green spaces:

  35. @ Sub-Odeon: I’m glad to finally know what that weird thing we saw from the top of the Space Needle is! Visited Seattle for the first time this past summer and my friend and I couldn’t figure out what the goofy looking thing was.

  36. “My profession is noted for struggling with architects to preserve the human factors for people within the structure”

    Architects are a huge problem. Too many of them think they’re making an eternal statement of art rather than a building that has users. (Then when a particularly bad building is suggested for demolition, the preservationists come out of the woodwork to insist that yes, every architectural design is an eternal statement of art, making a mockery of the idea of art standing the test of time.)

  37. “Concrete doesn’t look like nice, smooth, white bristol paper in real life.”

    And it often has permanent impressions of the forms used to cast it – cheap plywood boxes or cardboard tubes. It just looks lousy.

  38. Because the drawing or painting is designed to make the building look good not real. Most of them are made to sell the project to a client. Somebody should do a comparison of architectual drawings and or paintings with how the buildings actually looked a year or two after they are finished.

  39. Note that the drawing shows people on the plaza. That’s the main difference between design and reality.

    Somewhat related: that building is ugly. Architects really need to realize that just because you *can* make it look like a toaster in a threshing machine, doesn’t mean you *should.*

  40. Because architects put trees in their pictures, and the developers/citiies/corporations/whathaveyou often don’t, or put in too few.

  41. Am I the only person who is mildly depressed that most people’s only cultural reference for Kazakhstan is Borat?

  42. Sorry, I can’t answer you. I’m too angry about Prop. 8.

    …just kidding. Actually, the Arizona Science Center is a textbook example of what you’re talking about. The whole thing is made of bland, gray concrete, and it looks very somber. Heck, I get bummed just driving past it…

    @Jason: Having never seen anything by ‘Borat’, my only cultural reference for Kazakhstan is that a lot of the Soviet space program took place there.

  43. I’d suggest it’s partly because architects (&/or their clients) almost always go for Impressive. That may be fine for CourtHouses, City Halls, & maybe Cathederals, but in most places people don’t want to be Impressed or Daunted, they want to Do Stuff (including sitting-down, occasionally) and to feel that _they_ are reasonably important. Vast areas of monumental-looking concrete, though perhaps impressive from a distance, do not lend themselves to this. (I confess to a sneaking sympathy for the spray-painting of grafitti upon such sterile & institutional walls, as an assertion of individuality — but then, I remember the ’50s (albeit somewhat vaguely).)

  44. Because the architects who design these things see them as sculpture and human beings’ needs within the spaces are actually secondary to the architects need to build Something Important. Sigh.

  45. “I wonder what would happen if you put designs in a gamespace of some nature, where the client had to navigate a tiny human through the proposed building? Might get different results.”

    Two words: google sketchup.

  46. Concrete is either unbearably cold or unbearably hot. It’s hard. It echoes unpleasantly. Your shoes scuff along it, forcing you to understand that it is a thoroughly artificial substance. And it feels dirty to the touch, even when it’s clean–which it seldom is. None of these properties show up in the architectural model, or even in a decent simulation. You have to pour the damn’ stuff and let it harden in order to experience its full, depressing awfulness. And then it’s too late to do anything about it.

  47. Way back @ #5 there was mention made of relating architectural designs to a more human scale by way of a gaming environment.

    There is actually some work being done to achieve that. It is technically difficult to create an immersive environment (3 dimensional CAD drawings, rear projected room size screens, etc) and that would be what is truly needed to give the corrcect sense of scale. Problem with that is – who wants to pay the (big) money up front for a huge pretty picture when that money needs to be spent on the actual building materials for a building that may or may not be approved?

    Eventually the cost will come down and the sense of scale will get better.

  48. Did anyone else look at that last picture and think “Only imperial Storm Troopers are so precise”.

    No? Just me?

    Never mind.

  49. Because in real life, they make us think of a grim future: one where our pets have all died in a plague, a future when we enslaved the Great Apes, who eventually revolted and soon became our masters…

  50. Because when looking at the drawing the perspective you have is that of God, or of a superior human who can float in a location some twenty, thirty feet above ground; when looking at the same structure in real life you view it from the pitiful, bug-like perspective of the peon you are.

  51. I adapted to the EMP after I heard the description ‘the Space Needle dropped her dress’. This works particularly well looking across Lake Union. Also, there’s a tiny local in-joke; for decades there was a goofy, amateur, stucco-and-chickenwire building in that neighborhood called the ‘Blob’. Also, going through the edge of the EMP on the Monorail and then seeing the amusement park is pleasant.

    The library, on the other hand, is just a terrible building for a library; but Koolhaas wrote extensively about how he was protecting users from specialist knowledge (except his, it seems…) so it’s not like we weren’t warned. The librarians are sloooowly rearranging things so you can effectively find your book, though.

    And, I should say, the two well-lit seating floors are pleasant quiet public squares for Seattle, where daylight can be hard to come by. I can’t see them as any so fancy and avant-garde, because they’re a lot like a corporate cafeteria — Building 25 at Microsoft, for instance — but you can sit and watch the rain run down the glass.

  52. Someone else might have said it already, so I apologise for the repetition.

    Concrete squares and plazas always look nice in presentations because that’s all you see, rather than all the other concrete blocks and squares and such that surround it.

    In Boston, Government Center is rather hideous. It’s also very open. There is a lot of empty space. During most seasons it is a blustery no-hiding-from-the-elements area. In the summer it bakes the hairs right off of your head, neck, shoulders, whatever.

    I’m a fan of grass and trees myself. Sure there are more squirrels, but the pigeon poopulation (yes I mean that) isn’t affected one way or the other.

    I think people forget that trees help buffer the weather when they’re kept healthy and happy. Much like a person in the midst of a cement square. . . they get lonely and dessicated. It’s depressing.

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