The ugly truth

All kinds of things get called ugly. And ugliness is seen as the opposite of beauty.

But these things are tricky. The Eiffel tower and the Albert memorial were described in their time as ugly. Mountains are now considered scenic, but in the past were symbols of wildness, desolation and danger.

Ugly is not so much the opposite, but jarring, variable, surprising. And sometimes violent.

Beauty gets boring. Too much becomes intolerable. Who says the sedating quality of beauty is better than the stimulating quality of ugliness?

Is a B52 bomber beautiful or monstrous? A motorway interchange?

What do you do when you have already designed the iPhone? Or a Ferrari? Just more of the same?

[Stephen Bayley – “Ugly: the Aesthetics of Everything]

Britain’s Best Buildings (of the Past Century)

A 2020 book where Matthew Freedman has asked 31 notable architects (including Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Ivan Harbour) and writers to give their picks of Britain’s best 75 buildings built since 1918.

“I hope the mix of working architects and thoughtful commentators expands the idea of what might constitute a ‘best building’ in interesting ways” he says.  The list is meant to reflect a range of geographical areas and styles, not just the ones with the most votes.

The Architectural Digest picks out a selection in their article including the Barbican complex, Tate Modern, Shard (all in London), but our St Bride’s church sneaks in at the bottom of the page! It has a similar concrete, monolithic aesthetic to the Barbican.

Barbican complex, London
Barbican complex, London

Concretopia – the spirit of the New Towns

“Despite evidence that these early new towns had pleasanter surroundings, better living conditions, social services and recreational facilities than in comparable towns or inner city, there appears to be little love for them beyond their own boundaries. 

“New architects and planners can be contemptuous, critical of the new towns.

“Early new towns were radical, incredible feat of organisation, planning, sheer bloody mindedness. To this day, in an era of faux austerity where political will is such that widening inequality is seen as inevitable, and grand schemes unimaginable, the spirit of these pioneering souls and their projects should still strike even the most curmudgeonly of us as visionary and inspirational.”

[John Grindrod] 


“There is an accepted narrative to the way we think about our postwar architectural legacy.  That narrative is somewhat akin to the plot of a superhero blockbuster: a team of supervillains – planners, architects, academics – have had their corrupt, megalomaniac way with the country for 30 years.  Then, at long last, a band of unlikely heroes – a ragbag of poets, environmentalists and good, honest citizens – rose up against this architectural Goliath and toppled it in the name of Prince Charles.  In this story, prewar modernism equals good, postwar modernism equals bad.

“Hence while early modernism is still much imitated [Channel 4’s Grand Designs with its glass-fronted white boxes], the default word for what we ended up with after the Second World War is “concrete monstrosities”.

“And yet, was that what actually happened?  Were these architects and planners the philistine barbarians of popular myth?  Are the places they planned and built as awful as some might make us believe? And is their legacy one of catastrophic failure?

“After all, they inherited a nation where millions lived in overcrowded conditions in cities, where factories belched toxic fumes onto the slums next door and the most basic sanitation was a dream for millions. It isn’t all that hard to understand the demand for change and the excitement of new ideas.  A mere half century had brought the motorcar and aeroplanes, antibiotics and nuclear physics.  The possibilities for human progress seemed endless, and after the catastrophic upheaval of two wards, people around the world were open to new ways of living.”

[Concretopia, by John Grindrod]