The Problem With Modern Architecture: The Beholder’s Malaise and Architectural Aesthetic

Olivia Benoit
Jul 28, 2020 · 14 min read

There is a new apartment complex being built near my house. I don’t like it one bit. Its austere facade resembles a formidable compound from the setting of a totalitarian dystopian novel. The blockish architecture against the natural backdrop of trees and flowering bushes is stark, not in a pleasurably complementary way, but rather as a combative affront. The crude colors, resolute and impenetrable, emphasize its inclemency. Arid boxiness reveals an attempt at a modern urbanist style, but the formulaic predictability of the model feels less futuristic and more inhumanly commune-like. It is an eyesore, unpleasant to look at and wholly uninviting. Unfortunately, this building is far from the only one like it. The age of the generic box masquerading as a pseudo-luxurious high rise is upon us.

This is one of the apartments cropping up near my house in Richmond Heights, MO. Source:

I wanted to determine exactly what was so off-putting and offensive to my senses. Understanding beauty as an objective philosophy, there are aesthetic principles that govern universal conventions of beauty. Aesthetic values are buried within the pleasure and sensorial experience of a viewer. The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that taste is our sensitivity “to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind” (Hume). Therein, Hume draws an association between aesthetic beauty and pleasure. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that beauty is not merely a property but rather an elicitation, again suggesting the response of the observer is key to understanding aesthetic beauty (Kant, 30). The experience encapsulated in meta-aesthetics is apparent in both beauty and ugliness, with the former delivering a pleasurable response and the latter an unpleasant one. My unsettling disgust with the apartment was evoked by its assault on aesthetic principles. The product of this assault induces “Beholder’s Malaise”, the most fitting way to describe the nauseating psychological and physiological discomfort evoked by viewing these strictly-practical, unpleasant, and utterly forgettable structures.

There are Six Universal Signatures of Aesthetics according to Denis Dutton, a philosopher specializing in art and aesthetics: An admiration of technical expertise and skill; nonutilitarian pleasure; a satisfaction of compositional style; a critical interpretation; a stimulation of experiences; and a separation from ordinary life. Successful execution of these signatures incites a pleasurable experience in the viewer and affirms the beauty of the structure.

The philosophical basis of beauty has been discarded by contemporary suburban building practices, trading it for cost and functionality. Modern architecture, like the kind of inexpensive apartments cropping up around my neighborhood, is an affront to Dutton’s Aesthetic Signatures (Dutton). I will explore each of the Six Universal Signatures of Aesthetics, discussing how the principles can be applied to forms both beautiful and unpleasant in shaping our environment and emotional response, resulting in “Beholder’s Malaise” when the principle is violated.

1. “Expertise or virtuosity. Humans cultivate, recognize, and admire technical artistic skills.”

Modern architecture has removed the humanity from our buildings, as cost drives computational mass-standardization. With increasing housing demands and developers looking to maximize the bottom line, American cities are becoming testaments to the “cost” of cost-cutting. Building standardization allows for the continued reproduction of blueprints on many different sites, bypassing the need for architects and designers and allowing domination by cost-effective, easily-replicable computerized designs. This proliferates the trend of boxy, uninspiring aesthetics. Computer design has eroded the fundamental work of an architect who would be tasked with finding the intersection of beauty, functionality, and spatial congruency. The job has been reduced to a system of formulaic equations that run calculations on how to maximize space while minimizing cost. Modern, inexpensive buildings are no longer created by skillful designers and architects looking to demonstrate their technical ingenuity; human expertise has transitioned into an algorithmic procedure.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly picturesque pool-side image of this apartment, also in Richmond Heights, MO. The design is formulaic and predicable, a function of a computerized algorithm. Source:

Modern architecture has lost both its human touch and its touch with humans, as man is removed from his creation (Fox). Beholder’s Malaise, as I have termed it, occurs because of this removal. Computer-constructed walls elicit discomfort in the viewer, the lack of human touch and connection strikingly unsettling. Modern architecture is no longer a product of the human, thus human ingenuity may be lost. Erstwhile, the beholder must reckon a creation that is not of his own kind.

2. “Nonutilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art’s sake, and do not demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table.”

The purpose of architecture must extend beyond that which is simply useful, as utility does not generate aesthetic pleasure simply from its usefulness. There must be something marvelous, odd, or awe-inspiring that is superfluous to the function to create pleasure.

The exterior of Doheny Library, exemplary of the Italian Romanesque style used by architect Ralph Adams Cram. Source: USC Libraries.

At USC’s campus, Doheny Library can be used as a case study in further illustrating aspects of the Six Universal Signatures of Aesthetics. Doheny Library is an awe-inspiring Italian Romanesque style, created to “harmonize with the other buildings on campus”, featuring “round arches in groups, walls of pale Roman brick with cream-colored limestone trim enlivened with colored marbles”. Cost and functionality were not the first priority; indeed the bathroom on the lowest floor and the inaccessibility of the bookstacks is rather dysfunctional. But no matter, for the ornate ceilings, the splendor of the stained glass windows, the chandeliers, and cathedral-like sensation of the building contribute to its beauty, overriding the loss of functionality to the viewer (“Doheny Memorial Library History”). None of these elements are necessary for the utilitarian value of the library. A library simply must have space for books; its functionality would remain had it been constructed as a barren, brown box with bookshelves. But the nonutilitarian pleasure evoked by superfluidity drives an appreciation for the functionally unnecessary ornamentation. The viewer receives the building as a gift, an acknowledgment that his pleasure is equally as important as the pragmatic function.

The interior entrance of Doheny library, featuring the stained glass windows with the crest of various universities from around the world. Source: Lindsay Blake

The origins of utilitarianism can be traced back to the Bauhaus School, an early 20th-century German art school that created the “Art into Industry” slogan and emphasized “the importance of designing for mass production”. The focus on mass production transformed the architectural landscape with the use of dark and neutral colors, cubic shapes, and the elimination of decoration to maximize utility within budgetary confines (Griffith Wilson). This is a form birthed out of a desire for efficiency. With growing industrialization, urbanization, and war as the backdrop of the Bauhaus School, their design philosophy has pervaded today’s urban apartments. When functionality is the sole purpose of a building, Beholder’s Malaise will settle. Pure architectural pragmatism implores the viewer to consider himself a cog of an efficient design. His interaction with the architecture is not one of emotion, but rather one of utility. This fosters resentment in the viewer, now used by the building in its assertion of its functionality. In this way, the individual serves the architecture and not the other way around. The Bauhaus model of building for mass production underscores the collective, not the individual, removing individual agency in the creation of his own landscape.

A modern “luxury” apartment in Culver City, California, where units can run up to $5,000 a month. The building features extensive utilities and amenities, but offers nothing outside of the scope of functionality. Even for a luxury building, it offers no nonutilitarian pleasure to the occupant. Source: Westside Rentals.

3. “Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.”

Returning again to USC’s campus, the Brutalist-era mid-century modern architecture is an affront to rules of composition. Mark Taper Hall, with its bland brick exterior and disjointed ‘flow’ or Waite Phillips Hall (“Rossier”) with its uninviting, imposing facade and prison-like windows evoke an unpleasant interaction with the architectural composition. They feel disorienting and unbalanced. There is no focal point, no flow of movement. The repetition of elements on Rossier feels rote and prosaic. Taper lacks a rhythm of movement; the disunity of two barely-conjoined buildings destroys the dynamism. Amidst the vivacity of Trousdale Parkway, these two buildings on either side create Beholder’s Malaise in sharply contradicting the energy of the thoroughfare with their stark ineloquence.

The West section of Taper Hall of Humanities, notably disjointed from the East portion of the building. Source: Public Art in Los Angeles
Even the newly-renovated lecture halls within Taper sucks the life out of an otherwise energetic campus. Source: William Theisen.

Whether grand or simple, ornate or modest, architecture must feel at ease with its natural environment. Some modern architecture has embraced this element, incorporating floor-to-ceiling walls of windows opening up the building to its surroundings, creating a space in which nature and building merge seamlessly. Whether looking at the conspicuous and dazzling Dubai skyline, molded with glass and unapologetic in its magnitude, or the delicate grace of the Haussman-style Parisian landscape, both skylines are compositionally remarkable in the context of their space. The Burj Khalifa would look out-of-place along Rue de Rivoli, but there is no Malaise in viewing it because its performance in the composition of a magnificent desert landscape is fitting.

Dubai’s breathtakingly ostentatious skyline. Source: Sarah Gamboni
The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It is a majestic feat of architecture and physics, overcoming previous skyscraper height limitations. The creation of this building is both compositionally fitting and a testament to the expertise of its creators (see Principle #1).
The city of Paris, also striking like Dubai but in a very different way. The Haussman-style apartments are compositionally fitting with the rest of the landscape and with each other.

Modern architecture of the American suburbs has lost this consideration for composition. It lacks artistic symmetry, building neighborhoods in an awkward potpourri of computer-constructed assemblages with factory-built components. The suburbs feel cartoonishly awkward and uncomfortable, bestowing upon the viewer colorful facades of mustard yellows and dark navies in an effort to make him forget the compositional disunity. The lack of consideration given to composition creates neighborhoods that feel out-of-place, visually uprooting specific communities from their surroundings. The danger of doing so is more than an eyesore, rather Beholder’s Malaise visibly alienates parts of a community and fosters a tangible separation. In neighborhoods with growing diversity and incoming populations, separation through this incongruence can create interpersonal dissonance. My hometown of St. Louis, Missouri is a first-hand account of what happens without compositional style. The infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex of the 1950s became crime-ridden and dysfunctional, in large part due to the incongruence of the housing complex within the surrounding community (Bond). The physiological response of alienation, Beholder’s Malaise, can be a catalyst for estrangement within a community, particularly when it is visually disembodied from its surroundings. A viewer should feel an experience congruent with his surroundings, created through stylistic composition.

The Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, MO was visibly alienated from the surrounding area. Living conditions shortly began declining after it was built in 1954. The complex was seen as a failure of urban renewal and public housing. The buildings were demolished over the course of several years, the last one in 1976. Source: Arch Daily.

4. “Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.”

5. “Imitation. With a few important exceptions like abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the world.”

Criticism and imitation are similar in that they are derived from intellectual interaction with aesthetics. Kant argues that there is a tertiary condition for the enjoyment of beauty stemming not from sensation and emotion, but also intellect. That which is “beautiful” must allow for contemplation (Kant, 33). Without intellect, the viewer will feel a disjointed attachment from the architecture.

Some architecture overtly stimulates the intellectual mind, commanding both criticism and imitation. Doheny Library was deliberately designed to “reflect the activities taking place inside, namely those of education and higher learning”. Ralph Adams Cram, a designer of the library, believed that the Gothic architecture instilled a sense of unity of proposition and “reverence for the building’s purpose”. The goal of higher education, Cram believed, was encapsulated in Gothic architecture (“Doheny Memorial Library History”). Education is displayed in other motifs throughout the building. William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri welcome visitors on either side of the entrance, their statues a reminder of the eternal power of the written word. The significance of choosing poets to flank the sides of the library was perhaps a nod to the Horatian simile ut pictura poesis, “as is painting, so is poetry”. The adoption of this Latin phrase during the Renaissance indicates an essential comparability between the literary and visual arts. There is a kinship between the visual and the written word. Horace’s implies that careful intellectual interpretation is necessary in both art and literature; there is pleasure in intellectual critique.

A scene of the universal teacher instructing students with the symbols of knowledge, Alpha and Omega, establishes a space of contemplation and intellect containing all thoughts and ideas within. Source: University of Southern California

Although the art is evocative of faraway places and distant people, Doheny’s architecture allows for imitation, grounding itself within the native materiality of Southern California. All the furnishings are made in America. Use of native California woods solidify the library in the present. As art is supposed to “simulate experiences of the world”, Doheny library creates an ecology that transcends temporal boundaries while establishing the experience in the physical geography of the community (“Doheny Memorial Library History”).

The woods lining the doorway, the beams, and the furniture of Dohney library is all native to California. Source: University of Southern California

Materials for modern buildings are rarely curated with the same care. The apartment complex near my house features factory-created materials shipped in from other states and countries. It is detached from the area, not only in the composition but in the physical materiality. Moreover, the apartments lack intellectual stimulation. Their uninspiring, repetitious facade gives little for a viewer to critique, as its predictability displaces consideration. SCI-Arc Director Eric Owen Moss, an architect in Culver City, remarks that the skin-deep approach “trivializes architecture and planning and makes the art of creating buildings all about superficial decoration. You’re clever if you paint something different or add a sunscreen.” In this way, developers give the imposition of creativity, but deliver superficiality (Kim). Beholder’s Malaise is noted by psychologist Daniel Berlyne, an expert in experimental aesthetics. Through mathematical theory trials, he noted that it is not just a perception of pleasurable beauty that drives interaction with architecture but also our motivations for curiosity. The urge to explore new spaces is compelled by a desire to collect information. Urbanist Jan Gehl observed that open, active facades inspire people to pause and visually explore, looking to expose the secrets of the architecture. The boredom that arises from modern architecture when there is nothing to visually explore creates physical discomfort and stress, years of studies have concluded (Ellard). Architecture that inspires investigation and intellectual stimulation is pleasing to the viewer, even if he or she is unaware of their subconscious critiques. Moreover, beautiful architecture inspires experiences, whether through invigoration with the surroundings, incorporation of recognizable anecdotes, or elements grounded in localized geography. A combination of intellectual and experiential leads to a pleasurable aesthetic. When removing the intellectual and experiential, the viewer sees nothing that arouses the mind and feels Malaise.

A recently completed apartment complex and Dallas, TX. Nothing stimulates the curious mind. I’ve seen all I need to see — Yawn. Source: Bloomberg.

6. “Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.”

Attitudes and orientations dictate how cultures shape their environments. Regardless of culture, a view of a pictorial landscape can manifest itself both in an emotional sense of awe and in the physiological reaction of an increased heart-rate or pupil dilation. While a person may find the rushing river of the landscape to be the most sublime while another the steep magnificence of the mountains, the response brought by a combination of intellectual interpretation, emotion, instinct, sociology, and sensorial experience implies that varying interpretations of universal aesthetics elicit similar responses to “beauty” (Holm).

What do you find most beautiful, the mountains or the water? Ask a few friends and I’m sure you’ll all have different responses. Nonetheless, there is undeniable aesthetic beauty in this photo.

Here, I concede that cultural variation may underscore differences in opinion. Yet, the former five Universal Signatures of Aesthetics help in unpacking this final one. The removal from ordinary life into the extraordinary is less encapsulated in architecture and more in the emotional response to the architecture. The architecture itself is not the experience, but rather the viewer’s experience is informed by it. The feeling, emotion, critique, and appreciation contribute to the notion of “experience” in a broader sense. If the viewer feels a sense of belonging, awe, or pleasure that is removed from ordinary sensation, the building has achieved its beautiful aesthetic.

The extraordinary experience is what divides the beautiful from the ugly. Buildings like Doheny Library, meticulous in construction, balanced in composition, and considerate of the viewer, are the spaces that give me a moment of pause. This moment contains the pleasure of the former five elements: technical expertise, nonutilitarianism, stylistic composition, criticism, and simulation of experiences. The final Principle of Aesthetic is the brief removal from the mundanity of everyday life, propelled by the aesthetic beauty of a space. Every time I see Doheny Library, I am briefly transported out of my surroundings and into a space of awe.

One word: striking. Source: University of Southern California

The crime of modern cityscapes is that they are unexceptional in every way. The Beholder’s Malaise that fills the senses and incites discomfort is jarringly unpleasant. But as Gehl’s study found, the response to ugly architecture is not anger or fury, a rousingly impassioned reaction that demands critique and consideration. No, the response to the neighborhood architectural monstrosities is one of boredom, apathy, and disregard. They are unremarkable in every way; the formulaic indifference toward beauty and human creativity is grotesquely offensive. To mar the natural landscape and alter a space with something utterly forgettable and characterless gives no pause from ordinary life. The mediocrity with which architecture is regarded as a product of cost-consciousness is a reprehensible trend that is indicative of a broader approach toward economic considerations over all else.

Source: Getty Images.

The dystopian apartments cropping up near my house will be completed in the next few months. The project was recently started and, yet, the developers are eager to finish, as the speed of efficiency is directly correlated to their bottom line. The sooner the apartment goes up, the sooner tenants can move in and rents collected. The construction is as methodical and algorithmic as the computers that conceptualized it. My neighborhood pays the price for this indifference. The developers will move on to their next project, leaving my community to look at the unseemly structure for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, it won’t last long; the cheap construction and soon time-worn style means it will easily go down and something else put in its place within a few decades. Until that time, I will drive by every day and experience the Malaise incited by its uninspiring facade. Eventually, the building will solidify itself in my conception of the surrounding landscape and I will disregard it. While my eventual apathy might be merciful to the eyes, there is nothing I despise more than something created to be forgotten.


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Social (Distancing) Sciences


A Social Sciences writing course focused on searching for what is hidden, what you find curious, and how these/this intellectual curiosity(ies) intersect with your identity at moments of collision, with the fragments, the rubble, and the reasons.

Olivia Benoit

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A Social Sciences writing course focused on searching for what is hidden, what you find curious, and how these/this intellectual curiosity(ies) intersect with your identity at moments of collision, with the fragments, the rubble, and the reasons.