“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. “They are different from you and me.” I thought of Fitzgerald’s observation when I was in Palm Beach, Fla., recently. The very rich were out in force, tooling up and down Worth Avenue, shopping for Jimmy Choo and Vuitton, walking extremely small dogs. But what struck me that was different was not the conspicuous consumption but the conspicuous architecture. The land along South Ocean Boulevard, at the foot of the avenue, must be among the most expensive real estate in the country, yet behind impeccably groomed hedges and carefully tended shrubbery were some of the least graceful buildings I’d seen in a long time.
South Ocean Boulevard, lined with palms, runs beside a long sandy beach. Although the gray Atlantic is not the sparkling Mediterranean, the curving road recalls Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. The apartment buildings across from the beach are appealingly low, the city of Palm Beach having wisely imposed a six-floor height limit. Yet, despite the comfortable scale, the attractive setting, and the fact that this is, after all, a holiday resort, the architecture lacked any charm. There were balconies, of course, but they were shallow and uninviting, a grudging acknowledgment that the ocean might, after all, be worth an occasional glance. The facades were regularly punctuated by roll-down hurricane shutters, which looked like garage doors. The architectural style was neither comfortably stodgy, like the nearby Breakers Hotel, nor fashionably chic; no one would mistake this for South Beach. Instead, the architecture veered from no-frills, Days Inn functionalism to a forced tropical glamour that verged on kitsch. It was, in a word, ugly. One ungainly building followed another.
It was perplexing. Were the very rich that different? They could afford beauty, grace, even whimsy. The eccentric architect Addison Mizner had provided all three in his eclectic Spanish-Moorish designs, which had set the tone for Palm Beach in the 1920s. So why had people settled for this?
Later, a solution presented itself. I was car-watching. Palm Beach is a veritable showroom of exotic cars, so many, in fact, that mere Jaguars and BMWs soon appear commonplace. It takes something like a Maserati Quattroporte to turn one’s head. Or not, since the styling of this large sedan is remarkably unstunning, an Italian Ford Crown Victoria. The Bentley Arnage—I saw two—is equally unprepossessing, a $200,000-plus sedan with about as much panache as a Chrysler 300; that is to say, none at all. These expensive cars, like the expensive apartment buildings on South Ocean Boulevard, were consistently dull, willfully dowdy. They seem to have been intentionally designed to appear not designed.
Thanks to Target and Ikea, “good design” has become a mass phenomenon. With growing prosperity, more and more people can afford a Saab convertible, a sleek Lexus, or a 13-year-old Mercedes, like mine. Designer labels are in the discount malls and designer buildings have proliferated to an extent that their cachet, while not entirely absent, is at least diluted. In the past, architects like Mizner, or Carrère & Hastings, who built the Gilded Age mansion Whitehall in Palm Beach, worked exclusively for the wealthy. Today, celebrity architects build commercial projects, shoe stores, subway stations. What are the very rich to do? The ugly apartment buildings of Palm Beach suggest one curious solution: embrace bad taste.