Seven Tips for Saving Ugly Buildings
“It’s always easier to save a place that people consider beautiful than a place―no matter how historically significant―that people think is ugly.”
So writes Tom Mayes, our National Trust colleague who spent his time as a Rome Prize recipient examining why old places matter. And as any preservationist can tell you, he’s right: Styles with architectural features that challenge viewers, sites with stories that outweigh their architectural merit, and spaces with layers of grime that obscure their charms often require that, before we get down to the hard work of saving a place, we first have to prove to a skeptical public why it should be saved.
How, then, do you persuade people to fall in love with a place that doesn’t fit the traditional mold of “beautiful?” This toolkit starts the conversation about ways to inspire love, passion, or at least understanding for the homelier places in our midst.
1. Join the debate of what defines beauty.Tom Mayes says, “As I talk to people about beauty and old places, I note that many architects and artists―like many preservationists―hesitate to talk about beauty. The hesitancy is for many reasons―the difficulty of defining what beauty is, the loaded cultural aspects of beauty, the subjective nature of people’s experience of beauty, or even the simple fact that decision-makers sometimes consider beauty frivolous or expendable.
Then what better way to engage others than to join the millenia-long discussion yourself? Even when others disagree with you about beauty’s exact definition and application, at least you’re all talking about the place you care about and keeping it top of mind for them―maybe even long enough to change said mind.
2. Explain the architectural merit.
Sometimes a style, even though it might be unpopular, represents a daring innovation or new technique in the field of architecture that should be preserved. Consider Brutalism, the name of which comes from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete.” As David Hay recently wrote in Preservation magazine, the style “promised a raw and rough materiality that had a social and artistic purpose”―a monumental yet affordable approach for many public buildings. Looking at such places again when you know their intent lends a depth and interest that perhaps you missed before.
3. Make an emotional connection.
While the Houston Astrodome, a National Treasure of the National Trust, can lay claim to being the world’s first domed stadium, even more resonant is its place in the hearts of fans in Texas and across the country. In its 40-plus year run, the building served as a dramatic backdrop for just about every sports and entertainment event imaginable.
When the time came for a crucial vote in November 2013 regarding the Astrodome's future, the National Trust asked people to share their personal stories about the Dome. The result: an outpouring of love, support, and affection that met the more negative comments head on.
4. Share the place’s unique history.
When you first look at the John Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, New York, you simply see a modest brick ranch house built in 1952. Yet Coltrane recorded, rehearsed, and wrote some of his most well-known pieces there, including his masterpiece A Love Supreme, in the three years before his death in 1967.
Now, local group Friends of the Coltrane Home is working to save the site, with the hopes of one day restoring and interpreting it as an education center. In the meantime, sharing this everyday home’s extraordinary past teaches those who encounter it how history crops up in unexpected places.
5. Go inside the place.
Letting people experience places from the inside out not only gives them a new perspective (literally), but also encourages them to make a personal connection with the space. Take Miami Marine Stadium, another National Treasure. It hosted boat races, concerts, and Easter services in its heyday, but was closed to the public 20 years ago after Hurricane Andrew swept through the region.
Despite the closure, its funky look and cantilevered roof continued to beckon teenagers, Parkour practitioners, and graffiti artists. So, when Instagram aficionados recently had the opportunity to go in and take pictures legally, they jumped at the chance to capture the inherent “cool” of this local landmark―and with their enthusiasm, helped others see the unexpected beauty of a neglected place.
6. Encourage people to consider the alternative.
The real question here is, “What else would we lose if this place disappeared?” As Tom Mayes discovered, losing old places―no matter their level of “beauty”―means we also lose our senses of identity, continuity, and memory.
He puts it this way:
“Old places help people place themselves in that “great, sweeping arc” of time. The continued presence of old places―of the schools and playgrounds, parks and public squares, churches and houses and farms and fields that people value―contributes to people’s sense of being on a continuum with the past. That awareness gives meaning to the present, and enhances the human capacity to have a vision for the future.”
Don’t be afraid to ask detractors, “If this place were gone, then what?”
7. If nothing else, remember that perceptions can ―and will ―change over time.Places reflect the ideas, passions, tastes, and technologies of their time. The elaborate Victorian style drew on the Industrial Age’s manufacturing prowess. Art Deco’s colorful ornamentation lent optimism in troubling economic times. Modernism symbolized innovation, experimentation, and a break with tradition. All these styles were derided at one point or another, and all have found greater love as generations pass.
In Tom Mayes’ words: “The history of preservation demonstrates a remarkable march of the ugly transforming into the beautiful.” Take heart, then, that the place you love, even if others don’t find it beautiful, has a lot to offer―and you can help them discover why.