March 20, 2010

The Ugly Ducking, Part II

The Ugly Duckling is a children's fairy tale written in 1844 by Hans Christian Andersen. The story is about being ostracized for (disagreeable) looks. It traces the life of a duck who, after spending years desperately trying to fit in, becomes suicidal.  One day while attempting to drown himself, the duck is attracted to his own surprisingly handsome reflection; an image not of a beautiful swan.  At its best, The Ugly Duckling is a story of transformation, revealing both the extreme hardships and joys of life. Yet, at it's worst, Ugly is a commentry on the shallowness of "image".  After all, the duckling never really did transcend his inability to cope with the world as an aesthetically unpleasing creature.  He simply evolved over time into a more socially beloved image.  Rather than teaching me to empathize with those less fortunate than me, Hans Christian Andersen has taught me that we all must all look appropriate to fit in with society.  

These themes play out in architecture just as much as they do in our lives.  The politics of taste are most prevalent in historic districts where everyone from preservationists to urban design review boards to gentrifiers and gentrifiees (?) have an opinion regarding the modernization of the city.  The Ugly Duckling suggests that over time, the ugliest object can transform into an object of desire.  This can occur either by retrofitting an "ugly" building to conform to "beautiful" buildings, or by being absorbed into the mainstream consciousness as a symbol of civic identity: something that was once ugly is now pricelessly iconic.  

We introduced this architectural version of the ugly duckling as a widly painted brutalist building juxtaposed with a traditional victorian home.  It attempts to fit in, while pretending to be something it is not. To take this idea one step further, I dreamt up a few variations on a vacation home. 

Figure 1. Pop-Brutalism. Here, a castle-like CMU block bunker retreat is covered in what can only be described as dazzle paint. Further detailing around the lone window suggests this otherwise serious building has a very loving owner. 

Figure 2. Floodplain Steamboat Gothic. An awkward building at best, this squat, yet top-heavy building dares floodwater to take it on with an aggressive saw tooth skirt.

Figure 3. Neo-Green challenges the idea of a green building by employing a sophisticated array of symbolically earthly ornamentation. From the stylized bushes atop a gable roof (the new green roof), to the fake ivy attached to a flower-patterned exterior wall paper, to the solar panel picket fence siding, this cottage screams, "I am mean and I am green."

All three of these curiously bizarre case studies empathize with the Ugly Duckling character. If built, they would surely never fit in with the other neighborhood homes. Would these obscure buildings eventually be embraced by the homeowner, the real estate agent, and the critic? Would their story have a fairy tale happy ending??

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