Canada's cities can be less ugly

Admit it, our cities are hideous. Our homes may be nice, along with the occasional building and some of the parks. But generally speaking, the roads, buildings and parking lots are horrible. And you know, cities didn't have to look like this. The other day I happened to glimpse Parliament Hill from across the river, through glorious autumn trees, with the Peace Tower floating above the trees like a medieval church spire greeting a weary traveller. Only an ugly utilitarian concrete bridge spoiled the view. But get up close and, with a few exceptions, the buildings are bad and the roads are worse. Brutal cement everywhere. Millions of people flock to medieval Italian sites every year. But no one would visit the ruins of modern Ottawa. So why do we put up with it?

I confess that for a long time I didn't give it much thought. Years ago, Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House left me with an allergic reaction to the aggressively featureless glass-and-steel "Yale Box." But by and large I simply assumed that what you see in the modern urban landscape is, regrettably, what buildings and roads look like.

In one sense of course, it is true; they do look like that. Aside from a few exceptional, mostly older landmarks like New York's Chrysler Building or Columbus, Ohio's Levesque Building (both in Ghostbusters Art Deco style) most buildings in most cities aren't worth looking at. But remember, our cities have taken their present form in less than a century, and our suburbs half a century, during a period of unlovely but economical standardization and also of deliberately offensive modernism in art, including architecture and design.

We tolerate it partly because we're so used to it. Also, it is a curious fact that, although architecture profoundly shapes our lives, people generally don't have much of an opinion on it, beyond knowing what type of house they'd live in if they could afford it. Folks react, not always favourably, to "If you want to play in Texas, you've got to have a fiddle in the band." But how many people have views on cornices? Or avenues? I was an adult before I learned that what distinguishes an avenue from a mere road or street is that it is lined with majestic trees.

At least, it once did. Carling Avenue is just another ugly city street. But wait a minute. Roman roads weren't horrible. True, 18th-century English roads were frequently so bad you'd be hurled from your carriage and drowned by the same pothole. But even then they weren't ugly and, as a rule, the better they worked the better they looked. Whereas our highways and parking lots look as if they were designed by Saruman on a bad day.

It didn't have to be this way. And rereading Wolfe recently got me thinking: OK, what should a building look like? And then, more fundamentally: What could a building look like? Architects may insist that the "Yale Box" is the only affordable way to build a big building, but I kept wondering how much of what I see around me is really dictated by structural or cost constraints, and how much by the fact that for three generations schools of architecture have resolutely closed their minds and doors to anyone who thinks buildings should look nice.

Then in last week's Citizen Sarah Jennings quoted Christopher Alexander's The Phenomenon of Life that "The ugliness which has been created in the cities of the world ... the banality of 20th-century buildings, streets and parking lots have overwhelmed the earth." And now I see it everywhere.

For instance, a newspaper account of the federal government's plan to sell off real estate to pay for the new health-care deal (not that there's a funding crisis) quoted award-winning architect Ron Keenberg dismissing most federal-government buildings as "common drivel ... the beige fabric of our cities."

Or consider the condominium complex going up at Sussex and Rideau. It's a key piece of downtown real estate, right next to several of Ottawa's few true heritage buildings, all in some sense medievally inspired (Parliament most successfully; I find the Ch√Ęteau Laurier a bit Disney). So what do these surroundings inspire? Right. Nothing anyone would photograph.

Perhaps we have more pressing problems, like the fact that the next generation will take for granted weeds sprouting on the meridians and in the curbs. (Remember when grass growing in the streets was a sign of decay, not progress?) But a society as wealthy as ours could afford nice architecture as well as lawn mowers.

There are a thousand aspects to making urban areas livable, from mixing urban and rural to green roofs to making bridges more decorative. But it all starts with discarding the assumption that it is necessary to live in cities that look horrible. It didn't have to be this way, and it doesn't have to go on this way.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson