Leafing through the forlorn images of past nominees is a cautionary experience. Like Dante, spiralling down the Circles of Hell, the observer is offered countless lessons in what not to do (or build.) With the architecturally damned once again lining up in their masses for this year’s award, it seems an appropriate moment to reflect for a while on what has earned these edifices their unenviable placing.
Its easy to see why some have been condemned. They are just damn ugly. MediaCity UK in Salford, 2011’s winner, is a depressing accretion of lumpen glass blocks, only made worse by it’s schizophrenic array of facade treatments. The AccelorMittal Orbit – the wonky red tower at the Olympics last year – is another obvious clanger. Variously described as a ‘crane collision,’ ‘Meccano on crack,’ and an ‘endoscopy gone wrong,’ it is a piece of architecture whose crimes against the eye are plain to see.
This year’s nominees find novel ways to look bad. In a misguided attempt to break up it’s bulk, the Ammonite Building in Southampton muddles up its fenestration into a naff snail-shell pattern. The Walkie Talkie Tower – which may unfortunately not be eligible this year as it is still under construction – has the unusual architectural distinction of getting bulkier and more unattractive as it goes up.
Of course, criticising these buildings from a solely aesthetic point of view is risky. We enter the dangerous territory of the subjective. For every detractor of the Orbit for example, there is perhaps another who will proclaim it’s vibrantly deconstructionist aesthetic, it’s structural élan, and complex asymetry.
Perhaps not, but the simultaneous existence of the blog Fuck Yeah Brutalism and The Georgian Society means that universal aesthetic consensus is not happening anytime soon. Besides, by condemning buildings simply as ugly are we not resorting to a crude superficial measure of their contribution as architecture? Is the word ugly in an architectural context even useful at all?
For the wrongs that can be committed by architecture are of course not confined to the eye. The worst that can be said of the Elephant Man is that he looked really, really terrible. He didn’t, to his credit, do any lasting harm to anybody – once you had turned around the effect was over. Architecturally speaking there is no such easy get-out. Not only can badly designed buildings permanently make the lives of their occupants more uncomfortable, confusing and laborious, but they can exert a miserly effect on the city in which they sit, making the space around them worse too. By being poorly built and environmentally irresponsible, buildings can inflict harm on even a global scale. The term ‘ugly’ tends to be associated only with appearance, and there’s a risk of suggesting that’s all architecture is about. But the ugliness of ugly architecture is always more than skin deep.
Let’s return to MediaCity UK. Maybe some of those working there really will find those facades ‘funky’ but even if they do, the development also fails on measures that are outside the domain of taste. Described as an ‘enclave’ by Owen Hatherley in The Guardian, the urban contribution of the development is for example paltry. The buildings emphatically do not work together, each as anonymous and seemingly impenetrable as the next. The only urban idea is the arid over-scaled ‘piazza’ at the centre which looks doomed to windswept disuse.
Reportedly, the development has won awards for it’s environmental credentials, but consider me skeptical on this count. Given the sheer quantity of south facing glass – which all that jazzy cladding attempts so horribly to shade – these accolades must be in spite of rather than due to the design itself.
2010’s winner – the Hamiltons-designed Strata Tower in Elephant and Castle – can be criticised whatever you think of it formally. Shooting up sleek and windowless, it makes no attempt to provide a human-scale streetscape around its base. Its top is equally as problematic. Walking over the Millenium Bridge, the fine view of Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Chimney is now interrupted by the kitsch ‘razor blade’ profile of the Strata lurking behind. And yes, those turbines. Surely an unimpeachable example of green thinking? Unfortunately not. The turbines on the tower only serve demonstrate a cynical environmental tokenism. Enormously costly to install and inefficient at the best of times, they now sit mostly unused due to noise and vibration complaints from the penthouse residents.
That isn’t all. Reported problems with the heating in the rest of the Strata have left many of the other flats alternating between sweltering heat and cold. Not only uncomfortable on the eyes for large swathes of London, the tower makes the bodies of those unlucky enough to be living there just as uncomfortable too.
So these architectural carbuncles earn their ranking for factors incorporating, but certainly not confined to, the purely aesthetic. Perhaps ugly really isn’t the right word. Mean-spirited or insensitive towards their location, and inhospitable to their occupants, they demonstrate that bad building design encompasses all manner of defects, sins and omissions. You might not want to go to bed with the Elephant Man, but his capacity for wrongdoing is avowedly limited next to a really nasty bit of architecture.
So bear this in mind as you cast your nominations for this year’s cup. The ugliest building may not be the most immediately obvious (though it may well be too.) I would like to see this year’s winner called out for crimes against acoustics or reasonably sized loos. The parts of a building you can see are the most immediately offensive, but it’s the bits you cannot which get to you in the end. And to the organisers of the competition I would like to make a suggestion. Let’s call it the nastiest building of the year, because ugly doesn’t nearly cover the depths to which architecture can sink.