We were at a our local bar the other day, when someone noticed a picture in the dimly lit corner of Jesus blessings a building. I jumped up and examined the picture to recognize the building as the United Nations Headquarters. I say "great design," followed by a friend asking "whats so great about a box?"
This question comes up often. I don't think Washington solely possesses this architectural pessimism, but Washingtonians have a way of becoming experts on anything with all the Master's Degrees. I know I can't change an international relation's expert on architecture, but I'll beg that one hear me out.
What instills confidence that the UN Headquarters a great building is the fact that Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier designed it. I don't know the in and outs of the building, but I know that these two were/are (Oscar is 104! -[Update- Oscar passed away December 5, 2012]) very competent designers with a record surpassing most architects in the past and now. My confidence in these two architects' designs is similar to the confidence most people have in Apple. I don't know every Apple made device, but I can easily argue every product is good. Apple products are known to work well, be built well, and have an intuitive interface. No one can compare!
So what makes Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier so good? In the word of my graduate studies professor, Robert Livesey, "What is it doing?". Everything Corbusier touched was full of symbolism, strategies, historical references, and arguments that would take hours of Doug Graf diagrams to explain. Niemeyer even recognized the brilliance of Corbusier calling him "the master" and he would use these same devices in his own work.
I know this isn't going to convince anyone outside of architecture that the UN Headquarters is great. What makes any architectural argument weak to a laymen is their understanding of architecture as an aesthetic. Architecture is a language. I can't speak French to a German and expect him to understand much. In a similar way, an hour long presentation analyzing the UN headquarters won't make much sense if you don't understand Chandigarh or Brasilia. If one want to truly discuss the merits of the built environment, it's imperative to know basic architectural language.
If architecture is only an aesthetic, there isn't much to discuss. I like plaid you like stripes.