Urban Uglification

These boxes have been popping up all over New York City:

They are wireless water meters, that have enabled the City to start billing for water without sending out an army of meter readers. Sure, people should pay for water usage—clean water is not a boundless resource—and wireless is the future, despite the Big Brother overtones.

But these boxes make me really annoyed every time I see them. Why does something that seems poised to become so utterly ubiquitous have to be so damn ugly? Most building owners haven’t even bothered removing the extra uglifier: the horrible Assembled in Mexico sticker (looks like someone attempted to rip it off in the box on the green wall above, but apparently they don’t come off that easily). Now I got no problem with Mexico—seems like a lovely country from what I’ve heard. I’d rather things were made locally, but I know that can’t always happen. There are probably no water meter factories in Brooklyn. But why does the sticker have to be so ridiculous looking? Why can’t it be more elegantly incorporated like in the Made in India utility covers all over the street (also a mystery to me how on earth it could be cheaper to ship something as heavy as that all the way from India, rather than make it somewhere vaguely local).

New York City is full of examples of these little utilitarian bits and bobs on buildings that are ornamental by nature of their dignity and character. They can add to the texture of the streetscape by adding a flourish to the building and most importantly by aging gracefully. Utility doesn’t have to be crappy. (You can click on any of these pictures to see them bigger.)

I guess it’s part of the plastification of everything, even architecture. I’m all for plastic in certain situations. There are plenty of times that nothing else would do—I’m sure there are countless medical devices that couldn’t exist without plastic, for example. Sometimes it’s even aesthetically pleasing, and who doesn’t love Bakelite?

But the essence of good design is choice, not default. Aesthetics matter, durability matters, and the details of even something as immense as a city matter, especially when it’s a detail that’s being repeated over and over, and a detail that’s part of the public face (or facade as architects prefer to say—sounds fancier) of buildings. That makes it a civic issue, and part of the story we as a city tell ourselves and visitors about who we are and what matters to us.

So that’s my rant for the day. Anyone have any guerilla beautification ideas for these little blighters? Stickers? Spray paint? I’m all ears.

[New guideline:  you know you're doing something right when everyone looks at you like you're 100% nuts. Taking pictures of water meters, standpipes, Siamese connections, and whatnot will do that.]



This entry was posted on Saturday, January 23rd, 2010 and is filed under architecture, urbanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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One Response to “Urban Uglification”

  1. 123

    100 years from now, these will be collectible.
    (but) ebay may not even exist!