The value of beauty in budget-cutting times

Anyone notice it's the ugly libraries getting cut?

The Minneapolis Library Board, in a desperate effort to balance its budget, recently floated the idea of closing four neighborhood libraries.

What’s interesting isn’t so much that they’re proposing closing branch libraries -- it’s their job, after all, to figure out politically acceptable strategies for reducing their budget deficit. What's interesting is which branch libraries they proposed to close.

What do the Walker, Southeast, Webber Park and Roosevelt branches have in common? They’re ugly buildings -- four of the ugliest branch libraries in Minneapolis.

Don’t believe me? Log onto the Minneapolis Public Library web site at www.mplib.org. Click on “locations” and you can view photos of each of the 14 branch libraries. The Linden Hills branch is obviously the most beautiful (though as a neighbor I’m biased), with the Washburn, Sumner, Franklin and Hosmer branches close behind.

The Library Board might as well have posted a billboard along I-35W saying “We close ugly libraries.”

This is no accident. No one loves ugly libraries. Ugly buildings don’t have natural political constituencies clamoring to keep them open.

And this got me musing about the value of beauty in civic architecture.

I use the word “beauty” deliberately. Not “design” or the old warhorse “good design,” but beauty. Architects love to talk about the ideas in buildings, but most people emotionally bond with beauty rather than with abstract ideas.

I also use the word “value” deliberately. We’re entering a time of budget cutbacks at every level of government. The federal government is cutting back, and the states, counties and cities are following suit. Accountants -- the dreaded bean counters -- are going to be making most of these belt-tightening decisions in the next few years. Accountants pride themselves on basing their decisions on rational things, not such emotionally loaded and abstract notions as beauty.

How can we possibly put a dollar value on beauty?

We all know what architecture based purely on value looks and feels like. It’s the uninspired space that most Americans work and shop in -- an architecture of scanty windows, ubiquitous carpeted floors, sheet-rocked walls, and suspended ceilings awash in flat fluorescent light. This is the cheapest architecture we can build, the architecture of the lowest common denominator.

I grew up, as many of us did, in this lowest common denominator architecture. My high school was so windowless and ugly that most people who see it for the first time guess it’s a factory rather than a school. My neighborhood branch library was located in a strip mall. Patrons never lingered; they’d check out their books and scurry home.

Faced with depressing spaces like these, it’s hard not to romanticize the past, when it was expected that even pragmatic buildings like warehouses, watertowers and bridges be beautiful. Look closely at the Washburn Water Tower. This utilitarian concrete structure is ringed with enormous statues of Teutonic knights and topped with sculptures of immense eagles. Or look closely at downtown’s Advance Thresher and Emerson Newton Plow Buildings at 700 and 708 3rd St. S. They are simple warehouse structures, yet utterly alive with organic terra-cotta ornament.

For generations we’ve known that a beautiful building can lift the soul. Our Linden Hills branch library is an understated little Tudor building smaller than some suburban houses, yet it has a wealth of details -- stained glass windows, a copper door, ornate metal railings. It is a beautiful building that will be loved-and used-for another hundred years.

I can’t think of a greater value for the dollar.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, located in Linden Hills. He can be reached at rgerloff@residentialarchitects.com.