Carbuncle Cup 2016 winner, bdonline Dezeen

Carbuncle Cup 2016 winner, bdonline Dezeen

*Carbuncle Cup 2016 winner, bdonline Dezeen

Why are so many new buildings ugly?


Stephen Bayley, writer, curator – and Vauxhall resident – has given me a copy of his book ‘Ugly’. Line for line, it is the most thought-provoking book on aesthetics that I have read for a long time. At one dinner party Bayley asks a visiting American architect ‘Could you set out to design an ugly building?’ Robert Stern, a star of debonair neo-classicism, laughs. ‘Of course. Architects do it the whole time!’ And laughter moves the conversation on. But Stern misses the point, notes Bayley. You can sketch a parody of what you think an ugly building looks like. But no one consciously sets out to design an ugly building.

Is ugliness a consequence of aesthetic intentions, or of the process of design and construction? More and more I think it’s the latter.

My very first job after University was researching the architectural history of Georgian Bath. How did a city built, at speed, by property speculators become so beautiful? Bath enjoyed a coincidence of factors which rarely recurs: buyers with money, landowners with long-term calculations, an affordability of craft skills, and an accepted style in design. I became particularly fond of men such as John Ford and Thomas Jelly (yes, no one has heard of them and that is the point) who began their working lives as craftsmen but designed and built streets which continue to delight us today. Ford and Jelly did not pretend to be original. They copied the style of the architect John Wood, a local boy who had worked in the construction of the new squares of west London and introduced the neo-Palladian style to his native style. Most buildings always have been – and always will be – imitations of other buildings. But the original must be right.

But what I have learned from the experience of the last year (for the Museum closed exactly one year ago) is just how difficult it is to make a building which is original in conception but whose end result is coherent in appearance and function.

This blog will sound naïve to any building professional, but what is striking in the modern construction process is the imbalance between the time available for analysis and reflection in design, and the speed of construction work. More intelligence, imagination and debate will have gone into a £400 phone or hand-bag than into the great majority of luxury flats bulging London’s skyline. (And more certainly than into the café in which I am writing on Sunday morning, with a wobbling table, and a door which will not shut each time a hung-over hipster stumbles in, too occupied with his skateboard to shut the door himself).

There are two solutions. One is that Georgian model: come up with a model of design and technology which can be repeated time and time again. I live in a 1930s flat which is one of hundreds of thousands of flats built by London County Council on the same model, varied in my case by being curved towards the sun and the trees in the park. It works.

But what about the buildings which are by their nature one-offs? Like ours, where we must squeeze a Museum in all its functions into the shell of an old church and the shadow of an old churchyard? What it needs, above all, is time to talk and think. Everyone – architect, planners, builder, quantity surveyor – must put in many more hours than is sensible, or profitable, if a building is to be good.

I have spent most of the last year sitting at a table. In meetings. Today, Trustees attend a fourth meeting to decide paint colours for the interior. Another meeting will decide the dimension of the café counter – which must double up for champagne at wedding receptions and the day to day bustle of soup and cake – and a third will decide how many amps we need, hour by hour in a future day, and decide whether this can be squeezed through old copper cabling. What you like, and what looks good, is the easy part. Every decision has to be reviewed from the point of view of future users – from brides booking their wedding receptions, to volunteers, to school groups, all of whom will share the space – and, of course, of budget. Was it right not to repair the tombstone and save £702.00, so children of the future can leer into a dark void? In dry Augusts of the future will garden volunteers curse you because we did not install an irrigation system, so that we had enough money for an extra display case? Can we really stack the chairs in the boiler room?   

If there is a detail of the design that makes you wince, that goes clunk – if the Duty Managers swear at you as they manoeuvre stacks of chairs from that boiler room - it is because we did not weigh up the factors correctly. Or pause long enough.

Right now, Rooff Ltd and their roofing sub-contractors Richardsons are cladding the extension with copper panels. They have made a machine which folds the metal into a pattern like tree bark. It’s beautiful, I think, and if it works it is because our architect had a good idea which he developed through multiple conversations and meetings with an intelligent building firm, and a specialist in cladding. It’s a conversation which has continued while the copper sheets whirred into being in a Swedish steel mill and sailed across the Baltic sea to Tilbury.

It is very hard to describe what happens on a construction site but if I owe a Friend or Patron an email or a thank you letter it is because I have gone to a design meeting. I hope it is worth it. This copper certainly is. 

Image showing this year's 'winner' of Building Design Magazine's Carbuncle Cup (courtesy of Dezeen Online).

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