The Most Depressing Places On Earth

The Most Depressing Places On Earth

This post originally ran 30 January 2013.

When my number one son was young he saw a TV show in which a group of people were scurrying about in an office nest. We were good parents and tried to screen the programs he saw, but you can’t catch everything. Turns out this wasn’t the first time he was exposed to this adult material. His curiosity was piqued.

“What are those things called, dad?” he asked.

“Cubicles, my boy,” I answered.

“There are so many of them. What do people do in them?”

The wife and I broke into spontaneous laughter. This was the only answer we would give him, despite his many pleas. Saying more would have been child abuse.

Only later when he had grown and had stumbled into one did he realize their full horror. This may explain why he is now aiming himself at the Amazon (the real one, not the Seattle simulacrum).

A month back I had to be in New Braunfels, which is a bit north of San Antonio. Too far north, so I stayed in a chain motel right off the highway. A watercolor painting of a flower—at least I think it was a flower—no doubt part of a set bought by the gross and made by machine, hung behind the bed, which itself was covered by a duvet with the same pattern found on your better sort of bus seat.

After my business I had to eat. I was too tired to drive down to San Antonio but there was a strip mall the other side of the highway. Same boxy stores you find everywhere, even when you aren’t looking. No grocery store, always a safe bet, so I opted for a chain “sports bar”. It was that, a “steak house”, or Burger King. Bar had metal seats, photographs picked out by an MBA, screens everywhere. Flip-book of cocktails (they’re always discovering new ways to mix sugar with alcohol) with colored pictures for those not in the mood to read.

Pizza seemed safe, but it was a made from a crust that was stamped from a machine hidden in the depths of a Cleveland food mine and trucked across country. As I munched my salad consisting of a nearly frozen greenish leaf with “balsamic” vinaigrette “on the side”, I immediately recalled sitting one day in the Hotel School’s library at Cornell, thumbing trade magazines. They advertised foodstuffs which came out of an assembly line and into bags which could be soaked in hot water or “nuked.” The ad boasted that all the big chains used the same factory. Yum.

On my drive back to the Austin airport, I passed an Outlet mall. These are the physical manifestations of television shopping channels. Hurry! Sale ends soon! If Dante had known about malls, his comedy would have had a snappier punchline.

In the summer I strolled up Cathedral Hill in San Francisco, and thought I should head into church to say hi to the Big Man at a place called Saint Mary of the Assumption. Glass embedded in a slab of concrete topped by a four-corner, ten-story concrete hat. It is more formidable than any prison. Edifice is whitewashed, which reflects all of the California sun into your eyes. Inside there is nothing but cold brutal emptiness. I’m not investigating, but I’m sure this place must have won an award.

A friend on mine works downtown in one of those glass-and-steel three-dimensional rectangles which stand on edge. He does well for himself and has an actual office which looks out onto the river. The office walls are white-ish and bare. Except for the south wall, which is ceiling-to-floor glass. No curtains or arras to hide behind. The windows don’t open.

Functioning windows are architecturally dead. Finance managers concerned only with eking out every fractional cent and thus worried that real windows would let out the heat combined with human “resource” managers who were terrified there’d be no way to track the effect of working windows on “360-degree” feedback forms, both conspired with “starchitects” to design “spaces” of perfect uniformity and sterility. These would “maximize productivity.”

This is what hell with be. Strict, unending monotony. Eternal unchangeable sameness. Nothing moves because there is nowhere to go that isn’t exactly like where you are. Infinite conformity.

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  1. Luis Dias

    It’s always fun to see lay ignorant people mocking what they can’t comprehend. I’m sure you’d rather prefer those monstruosities of the Rococo or the less flamboyant but yet still untenable baroque.

  2. Nate

    Agreed. I work in a “green” building. In my section, there’s nothing but a long wall of offices splitting a floor stacked with cubicles. The facilities have low flow urnials which one must hold ones breath when using, and it is all lit with ghastly flourescent lighting (of which the color temperature is all wrong).

    Apparently, however, this attitude of minimalism and green-ness did not apply to the executive offices on the top floor. And the fact that the building has a water feature the size of Wyoming.

  3. Rich

    The vast majority of buildings have been designed to house “lay ignorant people”. Telling them that their hating the place they have to work in is because they “don’t comprehend” isn’t just arrogant, it’s failure.

  4. David Charlton

    It’s a shame that you couldn’t take time to explore New Braunfels. It’s one of the few places in Texas where the local language is German, once you leave the highway. Very good local food and a pleasant river for tubing with an adult beverage. Go back, if you get a chance…otherwise I support your observations.

  5. Jason Fruit

    A cursory glance didn’t find an architectural award for Saint Mary of the Assumption, but I did note that the gift shop is open even during Sunday masses, which I thought was especially classy.

  6. Luis Dias

    It is not “ignorant” to dislike the habitability of buildings, it is arrogantly and astonishingly ignorant to ascribe the dullness of “cubicle jobs” to “starchitects” and other asinine connections of the sort. Yes, it would be fine and dandy to work under romanic domes and open windows to courtyards, but the inexistence of said archetypes are due to economics and not design aesthetics. The inability to comprehend these things is understandable, but not the arrogant display of said ignorance crying that there’s something wrong with the architects of today that not everyone lives and works in places as beautiful as the Counts and Kings of the 17th century.

    I am indeed sorry if people are unable to understand these differences and actually be interested in modern aesthetics. But that’s not my loss: it’s 100% yours.

  7. Rich

    Sorry Luis, I’m having some trouble with your argument. It seems unlikely in the extreme to me that lay people will fail to comprehend, “We couldn’t afford to make it beautiful. Sorry.” But if your argument is that we lay people are so ignorant that we don’t understand that the buildings Briggs decries are actually beautiful I fall back on what I said before.

    (I don’t think Briggs made a direct connection between ‘starchitects’ and cubicles or at least that he didn’t intend to).

  8. Could not a talented architect find a balance between cost and appearance? I find it hard to believe that no one has that ability.
    There is a definite, provable trend in our society to drag every one to the middle or lower. Behaviour is modified by drugs, politics wants ONE party, anyone who is different is wrong and bullied (it’s okay to bully the fringes for compliance, don’t worry).
    Homes, too, are generally all very much alike. Rows and rows and rows of matching houses. My brother called them “break into your neighbor’s house when you’re drunk” houses. Only those who can afford to or have the skills to build their own home escape this in some areas. It is cost efficient–you can buy paint and materials in bulk. It is also very depressing and disheartening. I doubt that is by accident.

  9. Ken

    There’s no accounting for taste.

    Regarding the food, it could be worse…Soylent Green, for example, might not be too far off….just ask the Climate Change alarmists….

    A quick search on-line found a number of photos of the church–a design that appears to be an example of the ‘sophisticated elegance of understatment’ (artsy types like lengthy multi-syllable words that suggest much while really conveying little so meaning can be inferred however one wants). The image here:

    for example, bedecked with a couple of the infamous red/white&black flags it looks like it would have pretty much fit right in as-is as the backdrop for a massive Nazi rally…

  10. john robertson

    George Carlin made great comment on this aspect of culture,I think on the same rant where George was discussing save the planet.
    This uniformity of culture, is from the law of unintended consequences, its getting very hard to build what you need, because of rigid codes, even more rigid and ignorant enforcers of those codes, costs escalate as soon as you seek variances.
    Insurance complications, loan holdups.
    In the interests of safety, efficiency and respect my authority we find ourselves controlled to the last inch on our own property and businesses get crimped even harder.
    Its civilization, the nonproductive, inspiration free and ambition less who seek to hold control over the creative and productive.
    Classic demonstration is in the liberal approach to freedom of speak.
    (As long as you say what we want to hear)

  11. max

    RE: mass produced manufactured food-like product.

    One only needs to spend 3 days of being unable to find anything edible in “local” restaurants while traveling to appreciate the greatness of food produced to the lowest common denominator. I have encountered too many instances of alleged food which is either: too warm to be considered raw yet not warm enough to have been cooked, has spent so long being cooked that all the flavor got bored and left leaving behind a texture resembling rubber, might be great if not for such massive overuse of one spice as a condiment that one might as well be eating coriander (or whatever), buried under so much grease that a plate comes with an OPEC application, comes from kitchen with so much vinegar that everything which comes out the kitchen tastes like vinegar, and many more forms of inedible supposedly once food. There is something truly magnificent about knowing that one can enter the Golden Arches and order an edible albeit barely palatable meal nearly identical to one provided by the Golden Arches in any other part of the world.

  12. Doug M

    You don’t like St. Mary’s cathedral? You must have missed the “Bosom of Mary.”

    Sometime in the early afternoon the light catches the cathedral in such a way as to projecting a distinctly boob shaped shadow onto the side of the cathedral. It is quite a sight to behold.

    Regarding windows that open, San Francisco is air conditioned by God. Most of us can live without it. But no A/C in a residence is quite different than no A/C in an office building. The Federal building in San Francisco, one of the uglier buildings ever constructed and Pritzker prize winner before it was even completed, has no A/C. The Architects wanted the first LEED platinum building. They didn’t get it. Anyway, instead of AC the windows open. The workers in the building complain that the wind down the hallways blows all of the paperwork off their desks.

  13. Ray

    I sort of agree with max, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. In the early 1980s I worked in Berlin and Mcdonals opened their first hanburger store there. The day it opened we all went there for a hanburger. Alas, the German version just wasn’t very good. It lost something in the translation from US to German ingredients. It is possible to screw up something as simple as a hamburger.

    BTW, I think Dante’s 7th circle of hell should be cubicles. There is nothing more boring.

  14. Andy

    Luis is even more touchy than usual.

    Is he an architect?

  15. Larry Geiger

    I see no mention of Blue Bell!?! Blue Bell? You were actually there and didn’t get any. Now that’s sad!

  16. Ye Olde Statistician

    Luis errs in supposing that the alternatives lie between glass box monstrosities and the palace of Versailles. People once worked in buildings that had a modicum of class. For example, in this photo:
    stands the old Easton (PA) public library. Off to the right of the picture is the new Annex, where the circulation collection now resides. When they built it, they made an effort to match the brickwork of the original, but they just couldn’t do it. There seem to be no more skilled bricklayers of the old craftsman sort.
    Here is a church building in the same city, built a hundred years ago by German immigrants:

  17. j ferguson

    Well, I was an architect before I retired. I do understand what Briggs is talking about, though. I’m pretty sure Luis is.

    Friend who had been a visiting professor in Moscow at one of their architecture schools in the ’60s was permitted a car. He told us of driving out one of their roads lined by gray concrete building after gray concrete building, for miles, then he was suddenly struck by something different about one of the buildings. It had a window with flowers in it. The only one in miles of gray.

    I should add that I never thought the Taco Bell school of design, as amply demonstrated all across the South, was the answer either.

  18. Hell is where there is nothing to which to aspire. Except mediocrity.

    A local university is likely to change it’s motto from “Seek Wisdom” to “MBA’s R’us” at its Centennary this year. “Wisdom” is probably beyond the abilities of current administrators to explain. After all; they have so little time between calculating projected KPI’s.

  19. JH

    What’s wrong with the pictured church? It looks to be a minimalist beauty. I’d like to see the inside of the church. Temples, churches, shrines, synagogues, and mosques are charming places, each with its own character and history.

    Just like each of my colleagues’ offices, though similar in shapes, has its own character, be it messy or organized or decorated with her own drawing of Dalai Lama and award plaques and books and papers. Love the differences.

    Mr. Briggs, you are too busy looking for the ugly to notice the beautiful around you. Be happy!

  20. Briggs


    Lots of sticking up for ugly buildings, okay. But where are all the defenders of cubicles, chain restaurants, malls, and all the rest?

  21. MattL

    Tyler Cowen wrote a book about finding good restaurants. He says that strip malls are actually good places to look (there’s more to it, of course).

    Chain restaurants were defended above as an easy way to find relatively familiar and acceptable fare quickly in an unfamiliar environment. Of course, some are better than others, and many are too snobbish to admit that the food is often decent.

    I cannot defend cubicles. I’ll leave that to Andy Grove.

  22. Person of Choler

    See Tom Wolfe’s slim volume “From Bauhaus to Our House” for a well done flensing of the architects who perpetrated the minimalist churches, unlivable houses, and glass walled cubicle farms.

    “What has happened to architecture since the second world war that the only passers-by who can contemplate it without pain are those equipped with a white stick and a dog?”
    ~Henry Bernard Levin

  23. Rich

    From “1737, “shaded walk serving as a promenade,” from The Mall, broad, tree-lined promenade in St. James’s Park, London (1674), formerly an open alley that was used to play pall-mall, a croquet-like game involving hitting a ball with a mallet through a ring, from Fr. pallemaille, from It. pallamaglio, from palla “ball” (see balloon) + maglio “mallet.”

    What’s not to like?

    “Modern sense of “enclosed shopping gallery” is from 1963.” Ah well.

  24. Joey H

    Cubicles are preferable to “open offices,” in my opinion. At least there is a little dampening of noise and people have to move to make sure you are looking at them instead of just shouting at you. You get a little less direct airflow of germs from people hacking as they walk to the kitchen as well.

    Some of the chains aren’t so bad like Chipotle, In&Out, PF Chang’s, Olive Garden, Baja Fresh, Rubio’s, WaHoos, B.J.’s, Lucille’s… it’s entirely possible that I just don’t have good taste in food or my expectations are just that low, but I can tell the difference between good and bad foods and the differences in chains that serve the same dishes. Some say that Southern CA chains are better than other places, I dunno.

  25. Eric Anderson

    I’ll put in a thumbs up for New Braunfels, if you get off the path.

    I’ll also second the problem of winds in San Francisco if a bunch of people are allowed to open windows up high. Although I had always heard that the reason for not having opening windows had less to do with annoying wind and more to do with the owners fearing too many depressed office workers would cast themselves to the wind, so to speak . . .

  26. Our Lady of the Maytag isn’t exactly horrible – it just fails as a Catholic church. It would make a perfectly serviceable, if over the top, central exhibit hall in a convention center, and might work great as an evangelical mega-church. But for a religion built on capital ‘T’ Tradition, it is frustrating and confusing to have a church building so devoid of traditional reference points. This does NOT mean every new church has to look exactly like every old church – but it does mean that a good new Catholic church should be clearly recognizable as such, especially to ‘ignorant laymen’. Instead, we often have to read the brochure to figure out what the architect was trying to say, which is a failure on the part of the architect.

    Oh, and cubicles suck.

  27. j ferguson

    it could be that the problem here is that like women’s clothing which reputedly is devised to appeal to other women, architecture is intended to appeal to other architects, not the clewless.

    It’s a bit like, “While you’re at it, why not have some fun with it?”

  28. Doug M

    Joseph Moore,

    There is something about church asthetics. It isn’t too hard to tell the the denomination of a curch from the asthetics of the building.

  29. Briggs


    Looks like what is left the morning after a Rock Monster over-indulged at the buffet.

  30. Doug – yea. Once was walking around Covington, KY for the first time, and amused myself by predicting what denomination went with what church building (Covington is loaded with churches). Probably batted 75%. One note: Older Baptist churches are hard – they hadn’t diverges stylistically so much from Methodist and Presbyterian churches until later, I guess.

    The Catholic Church is a miniature replica of Notre Dame in Paris, so that wasn’t too hard.

  31. Michael Dowd

    Profit is the game. Efficiency, standardization, simplification is the method. Employees are a necessary evil. Blame Henry Ford.

  32. Sheri

    Now there’s food for the “too stupid to cut up vegetables and fruits” morons that can be whipped into a smoothie (so named for the smooth operator that came up with blending crap together and then drinking it) or microwaving it. I swear, humans are too stupid to feed themselves. Certainly, they don’t bother to feed their kids. Plus, they buy “fresh” ground kitchen scaps for their dogs at an exorbitant price. They believe the seller actually knows what their dog needs to eat and they, the owner, does not. I figured with my yorkie if she ate and then “gave it back”, she probably didn’t need to be eating it. I know, too simple. The vet said that her regurgitating wasn’t a big deal. However, when they finally had to deal with her not eating at all, they found there was a problem after all. She gained weight and is quite healthy now, eating what I cook plus a wide variety of commercial treats. So much for the vet. We have been trained to look to “experts” who are wrong so often if working as bookies, they’d be beaten up and run out of business.

    I often wonder how people work in those crowded environments, like customer service call centers or police stations in big cities, without at least one per day totally going off the rails. I never could do it.

    Michael: Henry Ford had a perfectly good idea for manufacturing the same car over and over. The fact that people took the idea and used it for everything, appropriate or not, is not Henry Ford’s fault. If anything, blame greedy people who want “everything” and the only way to get it is cheap, crappy imported garbage. We in no way value quality. That’s our choice.

  33. Jerry

    This reminds me of traveling by interstate highway through urban areas, or really in any area for that matter. Absolute sameness. The same strip malls, eateries, gas stations, office buildings…..everything. There are no easy visual cues that you are in Atlanta or Dallas.
    If time is not of the essence, I’ll try to find the old US Route – just to see where I am, and what once was.
    New Braunfels IS a delightful town, but along the interstate? Just another population cluster.

  34. We’ve always cooked, but a few years ago, my husband became very ill, too ill to go out to restaurants. I started cooking everything from scratch, even canning and making our own ketchup and salad dressings.

    Now, if we eat out, we can taste the chemicals in most restaurant food. And it all tastes alike – like factory food, just different shapes and colors. We were shocked to discover how many restaurants, even “nicer” ones, use nearly all pre-processed foods and it’s such a disappointment.

    I’ve discovered that canning our own foods makes it easy to put a good meal on the table in 30 minutes when I need to. So we don’t have to go out to have “fast food”.

  35. >No grocery store, always a safe bet

    Why? Here in my part of Europe a big-chain grocery store like SPAR is always the biggest store in a mall. That is the whole point of a mall, to do your usual grocery and other shopping in one place.

  36. Amateur Brain Surgeon

    What Hell will be like:

    It will be like having to watch a nekkid Ruth Bader Ginsburg jump around on a Pogo Stick for ten million years while the Theme for The Benny Hill Show plays repeatedly over gigantic nuclear-powered Marshall Amps.

    After ten million years, Satan bursts from the stage wings and screams, One more time… and another ten million years drags by endlessly, at the end of which Satan announces that Pat Schroeder and John Kasich have been chosen to compete in the Hall Monitors of Hell competition.

    Satan declares that each candidate will have five million years to deliver, in excruciatingly complex and irksome detail, the finer points of their agenda, after which Satan will announce that the Hell Dwellers have one million years to vote while every single member of every SCOTUS ever, locked up in Hell’s prison, continues to scream “I object” repeatedly.

    Occasionally, Satan reappears on stage to ominously warn, “All of these details will be on your final…”

    At the end of one million years, Satan will appear and declare, “Monaco has hacked the election and y’all must have a do-over.”

    But, first, let’s bring back Ruth Bader Ginsburg and he exits the stage after curtsying dramatically…

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