Icon or Eyesore?

2 min

Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it was built and Lev Kushner says that even today there’s only one way to tell if a building will be considered an icon or an eyesore.

The Transamerica Pyramid is for sale. It’s now a San Francisco icon, but it was originally a red-headed stepchild. It was, as the NIMBYs say, out of context with its surroundings.

The arc of the Transamerica Pyramid’s reputation, from disgust to adored, is not unique. It suggests that a building’s particular genius can only be recognized in retrospect, that it takes 50 years to know whether a newcomer will be beloved. It’s true: we can’t know. But we won’t ever know which of the proposed buildings will be famous because we hammer down designs that stick out from their surroundings almost every opportunity we get. We make the human mistake of assuming that we will always like what we like now.

It’s like parenting. These buildings are our children. And instead of giving them the room to grow and make mistakes, to stick out awkwardly in adolescence and then slowly fit in among their peers, we helicopter over them to ensure they reflect our dreams. Only instead of having two parents, these buildings have thousands, and the compromise is dullness.

This gets to the heart of the contradiction in San Francisco, a city renowned for innovation, but when it comes to built environment, fearful of change. The upshot is that our skyline is weak sauce.

When I talk to people up in arms about new architecture, I ask them, "Where does it say that you have to like every building in your city?" Go walk around the great cities of the world, most of their buildings are uninspiring. What makes them so great is not their landmarks but the number of buildings, all reaching for the sky with their own style - some bland, some failed attempts at grandeur, and only a few truly delightful.

The solution to bad design isn't tighter controls, it's more construction. Throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. The next Transamerica Pyramid is out there somewhere. Just step back and let it come.

With a Perspective, I’m Lev Kushner.

Lev Kushner is a real estate and place-making consultant who lives in San Francisco."

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