Recently the question has been raised how to fix an ugly building, mostly in regards to the Di Rimini (and here and here and especially here). It is a hard question to answer without first discussing what “ugly” means. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are obvious problems with treating a building purely as sculpture and ignoring its contribution to the urban environment beyond aesthetics.
Buildings can be ugly in many ways. Some turn their back on the street, showing a blank concrete or sheetmetal wall. Some use such cheap materials that their facades disintegrate within a decade. Some are unconscionable mixtures of architectural styles that blend into an incoherent bloody mess. Some are multiple offenders.
Fortunately, designers have many ways to improve a building’s appearance and functionality without wiping the slate clean. An industrial building in my neighborhood serves a good first example. The structure was built right in the heart of the historic district and presented a brutal precast concrete face to the neighborhood.
Adaptive reuse by a local firm in 2008-2009 resulted in a new appearance and some good activity within the space. By using a modern scheme of awnings and accentuating the windows, the designers drew out the positive aspects of the building. It’s not a perfect fix, but it shows that the space is cared for and that the owners care about its place in the neighborhood.
Another example of an ugly building is the site at the corner of Virginia and Washington. One of the most important street corners of Ralston’s original plan for Indianapolis, it has been host to some of the best and the worst buildings in Indy history. The fun part about this one is that the votes for best and worst flip around depending on who you ask.
The original building was a ornate flatiron style building called the Indiana Trust building. (See Vance-Block building history). This was demolished in 1959 to make way for a modern building for Merchants Bank. It lost the urban density, street-level retail, and historic urban texture of the previous building. The new structure also introduced a drive-thru and a facade meant to be appreciated at 40mph.
The quest for modernism claimed another victim in 1959, but the result was a structure that some hoped would be even more timeless in its beauty. The debate over the new building was a reflection over a more universal debate: what is the role of historic preservation in our cities?
The new owners changed the facade of the zipper building in 2007. I will recuse myself for professional reasons and not offer an opinion on this one, but I am interested in what people think. Was the loss of a modernist building just another missed opportunity to preserve our heritage, or does the new facade and street level commercial space fix an ugly building that was never meant to be there?
Most importantly, do these examples give us any ideas on how to deal with our current stock of ugly buildings? Should we enthusiastically preserve ugly buildings as part of our urban history or should we focus on converting them into buildings that fit downtown?