Artist: Robert Enoe. Image courtesy of Metros Capital
Buildings have sides. The concept of sidedness is a design opportunity, an architectural condition to be amplified or resisted. Most constructed buildings, however, automatically orient to the street. The front facade may be endowed with extra flair (ornaments, details, finishes, etc.), though oftentimes all of the sides are equally uninspired. These walls are architectural afterthoughts. It’s not a problem of minimalist aesthetics, but of careless functionalism—architecture’s responsibility to the public realm has been value-engineered out of the project.

In Los Angeles, dissatisfaction with the abundance of ugly walls motivates residents to reclaim architecture through art-making. People have appropriated walls as canvases since, well, the invention of walls. What makes this phenomenon different is a specific position regarding urbanism: the art is a reaction to the failure of architecture to uphold a social compact between people and buildings. Instead of humanizing the city, banal edifices stand as monuments to mediocrity.

Beautify Earth retroactively adds creativity to insipid sides of buildings. The movement began as Beautify Lincoln (Blvd., in Santa Monica), but has since developed global aspirations. Evan Meyer, the Executive Director, bemoans the ubiquity of “blighted, boring, and bland walls” around the world. He and other local artists resented their neighborhood thoroughfare’s epithet, “Stinkin’ Lincoln,” so they identified subpar walls marring the boulevard and repainted them with the owners’ consent. Beautify Earth has since completed over 100 projects in Santa Monica alone, with thousands more around America and abroad; communities and companies alike now solicit them to reimagine their walls as well.

Artist: Clinton Bopp. Image courtesy of Beautify Earth.

The nonprofit declines creating explicit advertisements because their motivation is civic, not commercial. The walls should give back to people, not sell products to them. In the words of Ruben Rojas, Director of Artist Empowerment, “a wall can be inclusive instead of being a barrier.” The organization builds momentum by empowering artists, who go on to spread the movement elsewhere—what Meyer refers to as cultivating a “mural culture.”

Landowners are actively participating in this mural culture, too. Metros Capital, for example, sponsors artwork across their real estate portfolio through their initiative ColorLA. Metros principal Nick Halaris sees art patronage as a way to “activate architectural spaces that have been historically left out.” Following an open competition, ColorLA selected artists to produce murals and installations at their properties. This is not to say that the rising interest in public art is purely altruistic. Studies show that the financial benefits of murals include boosting business and tourism while reducing the costs of vandalism abatement. Cheaper than a remodel, art is becoming an important renovation strategy for Metros and a growing number of developers.

Art on architecture is recognition that private investors are not the only stakeholders in the built environment. Buildings belong to everyone because the look of architecture informs the character of a place. When depressing walls degrade the quality of the public realm, people take sides—literally—by creating art on urban surfaces.

Willem Swârt

Author: Willem Swârt

Willem is a designer and writer based in Los Angeles particularly interested in regenerative design as the intersection of history, ecology, urbanism, and architecture. He currently works for David Hertz FAIA and The Studio of Environmental Architecture, where he was on the grand prize winning team of the Water Abundance XPrize. Willem obtained an M.Arch degree from UCLA, with a graduate certificate from the Leaders in Sustainability program. He graduated from UCSB with high honors and a B.A. in English and the History of Art & Architecture.

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