This is a fascinating book–ahead of its time and prophetic. I first saw it when I was in the 8th or 9th grade. Then the local library put it in its DISCARD pile, and I grabbed this copy. Architectural critic Peter Blake wrote the text and assembled the photos, many of which show stark contrasts to dramatically make his point. Yes, there was a lot of “creeping ugliness” in 1964, but a lot of that so-called “ugliness” has vanished–and Blake himself could not have imagined what was yet to come . . .
On March 27, 1964 the Whippanong Library (Whippany NJ) purchased this book new for $3.00. In the succeeding 25 years, only six people thought it was worth checking out. (That shows you how little people care about what their country looks like). Then the book was unceremoniously discarded. Side note: I am very disappointed in the way libraries carelessly discard books. There are many books I remember checking out decades ago which I would like to see again, but they are no longer available, and I can’t obtain them because I don’t remember the titles anymore.
But let’s get to the book itself. You have to remember that in the early 1960s, the “Old America”, (before modern architecture and the automobile) was still in the living memory of many people. Cities and towns had a certain “Disney-like” picturesque quality, and rural scenes were pure and unspoiled. There was no such thing as the “asphalt jungle”–highways and traffic, gas stations, shopping plazas, large-scale industrial eyesores, and suburban sprawl. Particularly after World War II, the American landscape changed dramatically, and this was shocking and horrifying to people like Peter Blake.
Blake is particularly repulsed by tacky commercial signage and billboards, monotonous suburbs, junkyards, utility poles, and cities scarred by super-highway ram-throughs and poorly-conceived urban renewal projects. He claims to like “good” modern architecture, but 95% of it is “junk”. His book cleverly juxtaposes images of “beautiful” and “ugly” landscapes and street scenes, with ironic quotations by famous writers to really bring the point home.
Here are some samples:
I did a little research using Google Street Views to find out what some of the “ugly” places in Blake’s photographs look like today. To my surprise, the “ugliness” he railed so forcefully against has vanished!
Peter Blake was a pioneer in the Historic Preservation Movement. He led the protest to stop the demolition of the original Penn Station in New York. The grand station was demolished anyway.
Looking back on it now, Blake (being a product of his time) could not see the human-centered, if motley, charm of jazzy neon signs and buildings shaped like a duck. Nor would he have realized how temporary a lot of the ugliness he saw really was. But if anything, the uglification of America has in fact gotten worse since 1964, and has expanded in ways that seem almost unbelievable.
I have never been a fan of so-called “Modern Architecture” (more accurately called “The International Style”.) But I could at least respect the idea that it embraced the philosophy of “form follows function”; that is, its aesthetics were based on function, not artificially applied ornament. It was “honest” in that sense. However, some of these latest creations (abominations?) are not functional at all, and are in fact warped and distorted oddities with Bauhaus (Modern) overtones.
I’ll lift a quotation from God’s Own Junkyard: “[Architecture] must without doubt be directed by some sure rules of art and proportion, which whoever neglects will make himself ridiculous.” –Leon Battista Alberti
Then we have the problem of endless blocks of “remuddled” houses and buildings in our towns and cities– Victorians with a European sophistication slathered over with vinyl, stucco, aluminum and other “maintenance-free” surfaces.
I did find some recent buildings that are somewhat attractive and aesthetically pleasing that utilize modern interpretations of classical forms–while still appearing up-to-date:
I think this subject is important because I believe one’s physical surroundings have an effect on the individual. If you live in ugliness, you will have an ugly attitude toward life. If you are surrounded by beauty and elegance, it will uplift you. Such qualities are also a reflection on the civilization we have created.
It is also astounding that people over 100 years ago built such beautiful things, and we today–with all our incredible technology–usually build mediocre junk.
Peter Blake closes his book with these words: “For the truth is that the mess that is man-made America is really a caricature of the mess that is art in America . . . The inscription on Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral contains the famous words: ‘If thou seek his monument, look about thee.’ God forbid that this should ever become our epitaph.”