The idea caught my attention immediately since I spent an hour or two on Sunday -- my birthday -- sitting in front of one of my favourite places in Toronto: The R.C. Harris Filtration Plant. It is natural when visiting a place like that to ask yourself why the whole city can't be as beautiful.
Now, maybe we should be more precise with the question. As David Sucher points out, there is a distinction to be made between the site plan and the architecture. "I.e. between the way a building is placed on a plot of ground and the materials & finishes the builder uses to construct it." (Of course, the site plan question goes beyond just how one building sits on its ground, but the effect that all the site plans have on the overall look of a neighbourhood.)
In the case of RC Harris, it would seem to be a question of investment in the architecture. The site plan of the plant adds much to the drama and grandeur of the facility, but it is not a site plan that necessarily differs much from what would be done today. The building itself, on the other hand, is quite different. It seems unlikely that the City would come close to building such beautiful architecture now, especially for such a mundane purpose. Although changes in labour costs -- Tyler Cowen mentions cost disease -- play a factor, I have to think that there has been a more general change in our attitudes about the value of beauty. Where once a city may have been ashamed to have ugly public buildings, now it almost seems shameful to suggest paying more to have a beautiful building.
Certainly there are high-profile exceptions, but I'm writing about buildings for standard uses. Who, for example, is going to take up the case of making the new Toronto police training facility an architectural model if it is going to add to the already-heavy cost? A similar logic seems to apply in much of the private sector.
None of these comments should take away from the perfectly valid argument that good architecture doesn't necessarily have to cost more than the mediocre. I don't have much of an answer to that one, except perhaps lack of will.
Now, when thinking about the broader question of cities rather than specific buildings, some good points have been made elsewhere:
Anyway, bringing the issue back home to Toronto, we have two environments -- the older, urban one and the newer, suburban one. In the urban areas, the site plans are pedestrian oriented, and the experience of walking down the street can be a pleasing one. However, looking specifically at most of the buildings, they're mediocre at best. Suburbia, on the other hand, is challenged on both the site plan and architecture fronts. So, I think Reid and Sucher are on the right track in answering Cowen's question about "why urban architecture no longer yields consistently beautiful urban regions".
POSTSCRIPT: Read here to see why this post may be mistitled.