My simple theory on why we stopped building beautiful buildings (and why many other things suck more than you’d expect)

I recently read a post on Marginal Revolution discussing why we stopped building beautiful buildings. I have a very simple theory that I think explains part of why we stopped building beautiful buildings, and why many other things are much worse than you’d otherwise expect, despite our tremendous wealth.

My theory is that neither individuals nor organizations feel comfortable being frivolous or indulgent with their wealth anymore. Instead, all wealth is now used to accumulate even more wealth, power, and status.

In the past, efficiency and optimization were less critical. Successful businesses and wealthy individuals could afford to indulge. However, today’s businesses aim for efficiency, optimization, and indefinite scaling. No business is satisfied with where it is but instead wants to be much larger. Why design a lavish company tower when that money could be invested in growth? Or dedicate all your time to constructing a beautiful house when you could instead buy a condo in NYC to spend a few months per year. Think of how the market and your customers would judge you for being so wasteful!

Once enough people and businesses shift away from beautiful indulgences, the norms and markets that support them dissipate.

In the past, individuals could be big fish in small ponds, enjoying their status, position, and wealth. Satisfaction with one’s wealth was more attainable, as people used their money to achieve concrete goals and derive contentment from their accomplishments. Wealth was a means to an end, providing fulfillment and stability at various financial levels.

Today, however, we are exposed to a vastly expanded environment of wealth and success. Social media, global news, and entertainment showcase the lifestyles of those in slightly higher status brackets within your aspirational lifestyle. It’s no longer just about keeping up with the Joneses next door; it’s about keeping up with those you envy globally.

For businesses and individuals, wealth is no longer just a means to achieve goals; it becomes a perpetual quest for more wealth, opportunities, and optionality.

This relentless pursuit of optionality and growth can lead to a paradox: despite increasing wealth, indulgences may decline.