Fixing Ugly Buildings

Recently the question has been raised how to fix an ugly building, mostly in regards to the Di Rimini (and here and here and especially here).  It is a hard question to answer without first discussing what “ugly” means. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are obvious problems with treating a building purely as sculpture and ignoring its contribution to the urban environment beyond aesthetics.


Buildings can be ugly in many ways.  Some turn their back on the street, showing a blank concrete or sheetmetal wall.  Some use such cheap materials that their facades disintegrate within a decade.  Some are unconscionable mixtures of architectural styles that blend into an incoherent bloody mess.  Some are multiple offenders.

Fortunately, designers have many ways to improve a building’s appearance and functionality without wiping the slate clean.  An industrial building in my neighborhood serves a good first example.  The structure was built right in the heart of the historic district and presented a brutal precast concrete face to the neighborhood.


Adaptive reuse by a local firm in 2008-2009 resulted in a new appearance and some good activity within the space. By using a modern scheme of awnings and accentuating the windows, the designers drew out the positive aspects of the building.  It’s not a perfect fix, but it shows that the space is cared for and that the owners care about its place in the neighborhood.

The renovated building now hosts a design factory, an architecture firm, and technology firms
The updates were simple but effective

Another example of an ugly building is the site at the corner of Virginia and Washington.  One of the most important street corners of Ralston’s original plan for Indianapolis, it has been host to some of the best and the worst buildings in Indy history.  The fun part about this one is that the votes for best and worst flip around depending on who you ask.

The original building was a ornate flatiron style building called the Indiana Trust building.  (See Vance-Block building history).  This was demolished in 1959 to make way for a modern building for Merchants Bank. It lost the urban density, street-level retail, and historic urban texture of the previous building.  The new structure also introduced a drive-thru and a facade meant to be appreciated at 40mph.

The "Zipper Building" was a famous Modernist landmark

The quest for modernism claimed another victim in 1959, but the result was a structure that some hoped would be even more timeless in its beauty.  The debate over the new building was a reflection over a more universal debate:  what is the role of historic preservation in our cities?

The new owners changed the facade of the zipper building in 2007.  I will recuse myself for professional reasons and not offer an opinion on this one, but I am interested in what people think.  Was the loss of a modernist building just another missed opportunity to preserve our heritage, or does the new facade and street level commercial space fix an ugly building that was never meant to be there?

The new Broadbent building recalls the historic buildings once on site
The newer design allows for a more active streetscape

Most importantly, do these examples give us any ideas on how to deal with our current stock of ugly buildings?  Should we enthusiastically preserve ugly buildings as part of our urban history or should we focus on converting them into buildings that fit downtown?

Comments 15

  • Floors 2 and 3 of the Zipper facade were interesting, but I have to give my vote to the new facade simply because the street-level interface is a quantum leap above the ground floor of the Zipper facade. I’ll take the overly busy 2nd and 3rd floors in exchange for the ground level improvement.

    • Floors 2 and 3 of Zipper Building should have remained (“preserved”) while the ground floor being the focused renewal—to address the street. Too bad the city can’t be more creative during the ‘selling’ process. I guess New Urbanism sells, though. But I can’t help to think this building belongs to the redevelopment of Carmel’s Art District.

  • I agree with Micah: the Zipper building could have been “fixed” by punching the same holes on the first floor and harmonizing with the overall existing facade treatment: plain anodized aluminum storefront in the same proportions as the entry doors, black stone columns between the openings, plus some awnings of cool design could have done the job.
    I do like the Irvington building, but my attitude may be influenced by working with some of its occupants on a project that I enjoy.

  • I must confess that I love the new building, but my views are significantly tilted. I am an unabashed fan of Fogo de Chao, and the building has become near and dear to my heart, accordingly.

  • I strongly prefer the rehabbed version to the “zipper” version. The caveat is that I have absolutely no architecture or design credentials and I harbor a strong bias against much mid-century modern architecture in urban settings.

    I think the comparison of the Broadbent building to the Carmel Arts & Design district is misplaced. To me it’s obvious that the Broadbent isn’t a 100-year old building, but is a present-day work that borrows elements from historic archictecture. The light fixtures and railings all make clear that its not a particularly old building. In contrast, the buildings in Carmel, which I find aesthetically pleasing, are disorienting because they appear to be replicas of historic buildings with absolutely no present-day influence. I still do a double take when I see some of those buildings, because I know they weren’t there 10 years ago, but they look like they have been they are 100 years old. The Broadbent facade is obviously new compared to the Carmel buildings.

    While I subjectively prefer the appearance of the rehabbed building, worse than the appearance of the zipper building was its function, with those stupid, tiny windows and no windows at all on the point. The expansion of the windows and the addition of the balconies on the point of the building make it much more functional than it was, and such changes would have looked ridiculous without a complete rehab of the exterior. I have to presume that those changes make the building a much more pleasant and useful space on the inside, as well.

    I don’t advocating wiping such design off the face of the earth, but that building, as Graeme notes, never should have been built and was a horrible, anti-urban building in a key part of downtown Indianapolis. I believe in preservation, but not preservation at all costs. This building isn’t “new urbanism.” It’s “urbanism.”

  • Thank god they got Fogo de Chao as the ground floor tenant and didn’t refurbish the building as planned with the drive-through (I believe they initially wanted a bank branch on the ground floor). That would have been a huge black eye on what is otherwise a very good rehab.

  • I hate to see what happened to the Zipper building as while on one hand the new facade is more attractive, it has lost it’s character. there is nothing unique or terribly interesting about the new facade, just looks like current retail architecture, any strip mall barnes and nobel looks like that. The zipper could have been enhanced with modern materials and treatments without loosing what made it unique.
    However my capitalist side asks, are they getting high rent from it’s tenants and are the tenants seeing more foot traffic and revenue?
    It’s one thing when it’s a government building or church where there is no need to compete for clientele, but businesses do what does business.

  • John, I would agree that it does not represent a true example of New Urbanism. I guess it’s a matter of how I felt when looking at the photos and some of the detailing. I too, do not have any architectural design/history credentials. But I do have to agree more with Nathan Guice about how the building totally looks like your standard high end retail architecture (Um, does Clay Terrace or the other ‘place’ in Noblesville/Fishers mall look familiar)? Understand your point on functionality. However, why would a more traditional FACADE make a particular building more functional? Either way, the interior would have been completely redone to make it work. It may be a bit eclectic of an idea, but I bet a mid-century modern treatment could have made the building just as functional and sellable. As a capitalist, it’s safe to do the ‘RIGHT THING’ for business. I do think there are alternatives to the traditional norms that would be more affordable. But Indy doesn’t have the mind set yet to buy into that. So in the end, It’s sad to see the unique character lost in our downtown but it’s nice to see the building developed to encourage viable commercial activity also. Just wondering how much of this discussion has merely been about FACADE vs. FUNCTIONALITY?

    • Balconies have function. Large windows have function (or, if not function, exactly, have value, at least). Neither of those improvements would have been possible while remaining true to the original design.

      Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Clay Terrace, but in looking at the photos online…no, I really don’t think the Broadbent building looks like Clay Terrace or the Hamilton Town Center. And if it does look like “high end retail architecture,” well…so what? That’s what it is. It seems to me that the criticism of such architecture isn’t that it’s ugly, it’s that it’s artificial: urban-looking buildings with artificial upper floors plopped in the middle of a suburban strip mall parking lot. This building is in an urban setting and the upper floor windows represent actual upper floors.

  • This demonstrates to me how intertwined design trends are to shifting cultures of individual taste. I’ve blogged about this ad nauseum. Graeme, without putting words into your mouth, I think you alluded to this in the past–that you (like me) care less about the design details in regards to aesthetics, as long as it meets proportions and standards suitable for urbanism and high population density. By all means, correct me if I’m misquoting you (though I know you wanted to withhold opinion). At any rate, judging by those standards, the Broadbent refurbishing seems like a success–though it certainly seems to lack any design flourish that might make it stand out the same way the zipper facade did.

  • I think it is a correct interpretation to say I am less concerned about the details than the effects. I think the debate over the zipper building boils down to whether or not people think that architecture should be art or craft. Should a building be allowed to stand out, or should it be forced to conform to local custom?

    I do think that details are hugely important, however. Facade and functionality are absolutely interconnected, because the exterior of a building creates the outdoor spaces that make up our public realm. The skill of an urban architect is in using details to create active & memorable places, rather than just pretty boxes. For example, the right windows make a huge difference to the function of a building, as well as the way that people outside the building interact with it.

    In the end, I am happy with the Broadbent building in its new form. I was happy with the original zipper building, but to a lesser extent. Taken completely out of context, both versions of the building were good.

    Looking at the DiRimini building, I am shocked how they have celebrated their rejection of the approved design. I do understand that they need to keep costs down and make a profit, but I feel that the community deserves a better product. Fixing this mistake might involve a lot of lawyers before another designer is involved, but either way it will take a designer with a lot of talent to turn this thing around.

  • I worked as an installer for the aluminum products that are supposed to modernize the building. They trimmed out the balconies and the four columns that run above the old Bank door entrance, up to the skylight. What I found odd was the amount of money they invested in marble to be imported from South America compared to using aluminum paneling systems that are found on your common car dealership that we installed.
    Now don’t get me, it was good work for me, however it seems an odd mix. I wasn’t a fan of the particular color they used of aluminum panels, it was a very basic chrome or silver. Which in my opinion is a little industrial feeling.
    I thought using a darker color like a charcoal or maybe one panel color scheme that change colors as you walk past. Now those colors were close to the Chrome illusion you may remember from Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR days. The panels started out a sea green, changing to champagne or gold and then finishing in a purple or burgundy. The finish had a light metallic flake that gave it some sparkle. We had installed those panels before on a museum in Ohio and a couple warehouses and really like the finished product.
    Now it’s very possible it didn’t match the color scheme of the building or the direction the architect and designers wanted to go. But then I question the use of the panel system at all with such a bland industrial color choice. That panel system isn’t necessarily cheap either being imported from Canada each panel could have several hundred dollars in it. I will definitely say it was much cheaper than the marvel being imported from South America that showed up while we were there. I believe that when in various parts of the building but mostly for the Brazilian steakhouse moving into the building.
    Believe it or not one of the most interesting features of the building is the bank vault door from the Merchant Bank. This building being one of the first in the Indianapolis skyline had the first bank with a vault, I believe it’s the oldest vault in the state. Although I didn’t get to see it myself the actual vault was in the basement but the vault door was on the ground floor.

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