Friday, 13 August 2010

Carbuncle Cup 2010 - a landscape architects view

It was announced yesterday, that Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle was the winner of the 2010 Carbuncle Cup; Building Designs annual award for Britain’s ugliest new building.

As is often the way these days, I picked up the news from Twitter on my phone. Other items that I found myself prodding my way through included: various wacky Government ideas for saving loot/letting communities build stuff, and an article about the ‘awful’ plans of Rowan Atkinson to knockdown his old 1930’s property and replace it with a new, modern design. Scanning through the articles I began to feel a certain sense of unease...

Reading through the comments left by readers, what struck me most was the uniform negative views about new development and modern architecture, but also how this resonated with the write up of the Carbuncle Cup decision. It seems to me that any public debate on new architecture is usually pretty unsophisticated. I’d suggest there are basically two architectural news stories (and the Rowan Atkinson article had both of them): 1. Old building has or is going to be knocked down – bad. 2. New building is being proposed or has been built – also bad.

I’m a frankly a little surprised by my concern for the well being of architects. When the Carbuncle Cup first appeared, I thought it was a genius idea. I think landscape architects are a bit like architect’s dowdier friend (the shy one with big, milkbottle glasses and fuzzy hair) ; they spend a lot of time together but LA’s rarely get the same attention and have to make do with the boys/land/budget left over by their more showy friends. So the Carbuncle Cup is a rare opportunity to get one back.

OK, so the Strata Tower is very big and very visible. It’s also garish, ostentatious, far too “look at me” and has all the sophistication of a zebra-print sofa. However, as others have pointed out, the decision to build such a big and vulgar building is made by many people and not just the architects. Hence, I have a degree of sympathy for the architects who have been singled out here. But it also seems to me that the significance of BD’s decision goes a bit deeper. Strata Tower is statement architecture. The thinking being that such an architectural statement will assist the regeneration and economic renewal of the area. By ridiculing this building, will it not discourage other developers from paying out for expensive architectural centrepieces? Is this not biting the hand that feeds architecture? And isn’t it giving further ammunition to those who oppose new or modern buildings?

Again, I’d reiterate that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing for landscape architecture and me personally. Perhaps someone will decide that a more cost effective way to regenerate an area would be to develop a really nice park, which I’d certainly approve of.

Of the other building’s on the shortlist, MAKE’s Cube thing, certainly stand's out as pretty hideously gauche. While it definitely deserves derision, the cream of the crap has got to be the Burns Monument Centre...

I’ve posted above a picture of the grandiose, original monument which was sadly damaged in a fire. Below is the new bicycle shed-type arrangement, designed by the local authority to “restore” the monument. It’s so crude and frankly such a laughably mundane use of a particularly flamboyant, historic folly, that I actually don’t know where to start. It’s just wrong.

However, I really think it needs to be seen in context of what was there before, because in a weird way, I suspect it’s utlilitarian, traditional materialled, non-design would not be considered offensive to many members of the general public. Probably less so than more modern styles.

Given the current political climate, with talk of schools in re-used industrial buildings and community led housing initiatives, I think the real threat to architecture is not wanky, ego-driven mega-developments, but buildings that don’t require architects at all.

It’s not for me to say how the architectural profession should present itself in public and maybe my points are irrelevant to the organisers of the Carbuncle Cup. As it happens I’m quite pleased that bad developments are being shown up (I’ve got one or two buildings in mind for nominating next year), but as an interested outsider, I can’t help but think that the coverage of the Carbuncle Cup probably isn’t doing the profession any real favours.

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