What Makes a Building Ugly?

Winner of the 2015 Carbuncle Cup for ugliest building goes to London’s Walkie-Talkie tower, but what makes it an eyesore?

by Tanja M. Laden
08 September 2015, 8:00pm

Left: Original building at 20 Fenchurch Street as seen from the Monument to the Great Fire of London (courtesy Artybrad); Right: 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie-Talkie) aka nearing completion in 2014 (courtesy Diego Delso). All images via WikiCommons.

Every year since 1996, the Royal Institute of British Architects has presented the coveted Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture. Ten years later in 2006, Building Design magazine established the annual Carbuncle Cup to single out the ugliest new building in the UK, and this year, the winner is 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the "Walkie-Talkie" tower. But what exactly makes a building ugly, aesthetically speaking? When you compare past winners of the Stirling Prize and the Carbuncle Cup, it's clear that when it comes to design, "ugly" is a subjective judgment.

Some architectural historians will tell you that truly ugly tall buildings are those with no bottom, middle, or top. The structures are not only unappealing, they represent laziness, because it takes an equal amount of money and material to make a building attractive as it does to make it revolting. Plus, it can take at least 50 years for the public to appreciate a structure, and many don't make it that long if they're considered hideous to begin with. So what exactly is the definition of "ugly" in the minds of the masses, at least in terms of architecture? Certainly not innocuous, boring buildings with zero design elements. In fact, it's usually the opposite: truly groundbreaking monuments tend to be reviled by contemporary society and critics alike before enduring the half-century waiting period in order to become beloved landmarks.

L to R: Blueprint of the Eiffel Tower by one of its main engineers, Maurice Koechlin, ca. 1884 (courtesy Koechlin Family); Caricature of Gustave Eiffel comparing the Eiffel tower to the Pyramids, 1887; Painting by Georges Garen in 1889; Eiffel Tower by the Seine River, Paris, May 2014 (courtesy Nicolas Halftermeyer). All images via WikiCommons.

A popular but necessary example of erstwhile eyesores is the Eiffel Tower. Now the ultimate symbol of the City of Light, the 126-year-old iron lattice tower is among the most-visited tourist sites in the world. For today's Parisians, it's a part of their cultural heritage, but back when it was built, many local writers, artists, and other architects considered it a travesty. In a manifesto published in Le Temps in 1887, 300 prominent members of the Parisian creative community banded together to express their views of the Eiffel Tower, calling it "useless and monstrous" and a "hateful column of bolted sheet metal." Ouch.

Left: Winner of the 2014 Carbuncle Cup, Woolwich Central (courtesy Stephen Craven); Right: Winner of the 2014 Stirling Prize, the Everyman Theatre, Hope Street, Liverpool, UK. Photos via WikiCommons.

Modern United Kingdom, meanwhile, is no stranger to scathing criticism of progressive architecture. Like the Parisians of the Belle Epoque, today's UK is wary when a brand-new, unfamiliar, and altogether baffling edifice cuts into the scenery, whether or not it wins a prize. In London's financial district, the Lloyd's building (aka the "Inside-Out Building") was first described as an oil refinery back in 1986, before the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England declared architect Richard Rogers' Bowellist structure as "universally recognised as one of the key buildings of the modern epoch." Then there’s Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe, a prime example of phallic architecture, a fact Londoners seem to have averted by affectionately calling it “The Gherkin.” And now, architect Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street aka the “Walkie Talkie” tower is the latest to join the skyline, and by all accounts, it’s not welcome. But looking at the building that was there before, it’s definitely an improvement, even if architecture critics don’t agree. Who knows, maybe in 50 years, the public will finally come around to actually appreciating it — that is, if it isn’t torn down first.

L to R: Lloyd's of London, Leadenhall Street, completed in 1986 (courtesy Stephen Richards); Millennium Dome at Night in London, completed 2000 (Courtesy Christine Matthews); 30 St Mary Axe in London, completed 2003 (courtesy Aurelien Guichard) All images via WikiCommons

To learn more about the Carbuncle Cup click here.


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eiffel tower
20 Fenchurch Street
Carbuncle Cup
Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England
ugly architecture