Life in a recently built apartment is like a simulation that’s constantly glitching. Your towel bar looks like a towel bar, but it can’t hold the weight of a wet towel without falling out of the wall. Your floors look like wood, but then they start rippling or peeling back at the corners like the cheap petroleum byproduct that they are. Your doors look like they close securely, but you know that if you accidentally walked into one while checking your phone there’s a good chance you’d rip right through it. There doesn’t seem to be water inside the walls, but you can smell the mold, feel the damp behind the scratchy, echoing drywall that resembles plaster but is, in fact, made of cardboard, gypsum, and the cheapest glue in the world.

Nothing is quite as bad as a freshly built apartment, but it’s bad everywhere. Take a step outside, and you encounter a world designed for the use of two-ton pollution beasts that will accidentally kill you if you walk near them. Newly built houses keep the weather out by means of a kind of concealed Saran wrap, which, as you would expect from that description, fails all the time. Newly constructed office buildings sheathed in glass must keep the air conditioning running in the deep of winter lest their inhabitants be scorched to death like insects under a magnifying glass.

Despite what you might think, there is no conspiracy behind all of this. Nobody planned for our cities to turn out this way, nobody decided our apartments and houses should be the way they are, and nobody wants to take responsibility for what happened to them. I went to architecture school, and I can assure you that architects think about the terribleness of your apartment much less than you would hope, but when it does come to mind (probably because they, too, live in such apartments), it makes them feel sad and helpless. I know less about contractors, but the ones I have met always complain about the shoddy way things are done nowadays. You can see a sad glow in their eyes when they talk about how people used to build.

“Nobody planned for our cities to turn out this way.”

Developers? Maybe you think they are evil, but a developer who went all out for high-quality workmanship would go bankrupt and cease to be a developer rather quickly, so it isn’t like they have much of a choice. My impression is that developers spend large portions of their lives—time you and I might spend falling in love or reading to our children—arguing with city officials about whether they really deserve an exemption from the R-7 special overlay zone requirements set forth by the updated municipal master plan of 1997, which allows you to build either a McDonalds or a Starbucks on that site. Totally your call which of the two, Mr. Developer. If my impression is correct, I can’t say I begrudge them their wealth.

Some may continue to tell themselves we live in a time of great innovation, but at least in the world of architecture, engineering, and construction, the sense of stagnation is undeniable. In 13th-century France, entire new technologies of church construction were invented, boomed, and turned into clichés in the course of 50 years. What was built during those rushes of collective mania includes some of the most beautiful and magnificent objects human hands have ever touched. America has used the same amount of time to ensure that every construction worker always wears a hard hat and a shiny vest. The only big change since 1974 is that back then, some people still believed the future might be better.

Why have we built an entire world that nobody loves? Why are the riches of the wealthiest civilization in history spent on hideous highway viaducts that crumble as soon as they are built, instead of temples, monuments, towers, boulevards, and gardens?

The world of buildings, streets, cities, and rooms is a world made by human hands. The developer thought brick veneer would sell better than something else; the architect chose a brick pattern; the bricklayer laid down the mortar and set the brick in its proper place. Someone selected the particular sink in your bathroom. Someone wrote the words of the fire code that regulates the construction of the new apartment building around the corner. And yet no one chose the whole thing, and no one likes the whole thing.

The one thing most people know about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is that it provoked a riot at its premiere in 1913. The riot story is exaggerated, like a lot of modernist mythology, but it really did happen; the theater manager turned the lights on and ejected some 40 concertgoers for throwing things at the orchestra. Fewer people are familiar with the building in which the riot occurred, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was designed by the French architect Auguste Perret, and it was brand new at the time of the premiere, having opened its doors for the first time only a few weeks earlier.

The building is in a style that we would now call Art Deco, though when it was built, there was nothing else like it in Paris. It is a concrete box, one of the first reinforced concrete theaters in the world, clad in white marble, nearly devoid of ornament compared to other buildings of its time. The pilasters of its facade refer to classical principles, but follow different aesthetic rules than traditional classicism. Its simple planar surfaces are broken by bas-relief sculptural friezes by Antoine Bourdelle, depicting Apollo and the muses in a geometrical, mythological style, and the uniform whiteness of the marble is set off by gold-colored window frames. It is both refined and boxy, elegant and heavy. Seen through contemporary eyes, there is something of the old-fashioned de luxe about it, like a Henri Bendel jewelry case. Despite this association, it is clearly stylistically related to the more totalizing modernism of Le Corbusier, who worked in Perret’s office early in his career. Unlike Le Corbusier’s work, however, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées doesn’t propose an absolute break with the architectural language of the past. It fits harmoniously into its block on the Avenue Montaigne, though no one would call it a submissive, or even a sensitive, building. Its dignity is commanding, rather than quiet.

“Bad art should provoke riots.”

The overall aesthetic effect of the building is heroic. It projects a certain view of human existence and art. In that view, human life is a grand, serious matter, and art is a fitting vessel to pour that grandeur into. This is the view implied by the Rite of Spring, too. It was also the view of the rioters at the premiere. Regardless of whether they were right or wrong to reject it, it is to their credit that they didn’t accept the piece passively. Bad art should provoke riots.

One way to observe the effect of a work of architecture is to observe the behavior of the people who see it or enter it. And I believe the architecture of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was necessary for the Rite of Spring riot to occur.

About a year ago I attended a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony by the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, the orchestra’s home venue. The piece is a fierce one, and the performance was spirited. I was struck, leaving the concert, at the total contrast between the uncompromising intensity of the music and the surroundings in which I listened to it. Benaroya Hall is a well crafted, thoughtfully designed building that looks like a large suburban branch library. If the message of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is that human life is grand and art is important, the message of Benaroya Hall is: Please enjoy a glass of white wine at intermission. It is easier to imagine a spontaneous board meeting breaking out in its lobby than a riot.

Our civilization is slowly but inexorably extending this sort of banality over every square foot of the earth’s developable land. We don’t riot against this, because the banality of what we have built has seeped into our souls. Every building around us announces that comfort, safety, and low prices are all that matter.

The same banality permeates high culture and low, from Benaroya Hall to your gray floor made of fake wood. It isn’t just a question of style, though style is important. The buildings that the neo-traditionalists have managed to get built are, perhaps, prettier at a glance than run-of-the-mill modernism, but they are hardly less banal. It is at least half a question of construction methods—in the United States, standard stick-frame construction is ubiquitous and perfectly suited for banality.

But more than style or method, it is about culture. If the built world is ever to be recovered from the forces of mediocrity, we must develop a cultural immune system that rejects mediocrity. We must, if need be, throw things at the orchestra, until we have our own Stravinsky and Perret.

David Schaengold lives in New York City, and is a cofounder of

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