Most major American cities have an “outerbelt” — a multi-lane highway that rings the core metropolitan area. Outerbelts are supposed to facilitate traffic flow and spur economic development. Unfortunately, outerbelts typically feature the ugliest, most generic modern architecture you can possibly imagine.
The picture accompanying this post was taken as we were driving along I-270, which is Columbus’ outerbelt. If I didn’t identify the location, though, people in Indianapolis, or Atlanta, or Dallas, or virtually any other American city might easily believe that the picture was taken on their ring road. The squat, featureless, five- or six-story brick or concrete office building is so ubiquitous you wonder why anyone hires an architecture firm these days. Don’t they just recycle the same boring designs endlessly? Don’t architects grow weary of designing utterly graceless, interchangeable boxes that can be plopped anywhere on an outerbelt and immediately be lost in the bland, maddening sameness?
People used to care about the buildings they constructed. They wanted them to be functional, sure . . . but they also wanted them to add to the beauty of their cities. Older buildings have all kinds of interesting cornices, and pedestals, and statuary, and other ornamentation that will make you stop and take notice. With modern buildings, that is no longer the case. Now, we drive by the generic outerbelt ugliness without a second glance, or even a thought.
If you drive to a city, your first impression of the town is created by what you see in the outerbelt zone. For most American cities I’ve visited, it’s not a positive first impression — instead, it makes you think the city is another boring, indistinguishable cookie-cutter exercise. Often, of course, the band of outerbelt ugliness doesn’t really reflect what the city is like. Why don’t city planners care more about the dismal impact of the outerbelt zone?