Day 508: Erecting The Erasable – Worst Architecture Part 1

originally published May 22, 2013

I enjoy writing about architecture. Not because I can pretend to know anything the subject, but because it gives me the chance to look at pictures. Letting my mind swim wildly through architecture books or drift free-form through a webpage filled with balustrades, mascarons and elaborate quartrefoils is an act of genuine bliss. I have styles I prefer (art deco) and styles that do nothing to stir my inner batter free from its natural state of lumpiness (international glass rectangle skyscrapers).

I have romantically prattled about the exquisite Chrysler Building and the sturdy Flatiron in New York. No doubt the mighty Empire State Building will be granted a thousand words of my time before the next 492 days have elapsed. I have a soft, melty spot in my heart for the buildings of New York City and the cloud-reaching triumphs of the early 20th century.

But I also have a penchant for things considered to be the worst – in fact, there’s an entire category of it here. But where I’ve often dug into movies and television that have scraped at the crud under the bottom of the barrel, I’ve never looked into objectionable architecture. Fortunately, Building Design magazine has, and they have created the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest new buildings in Great Britain.

The 2006 winner, and in fact the inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup was the Drake Circus Shopping Centre, located in the heart of Plymouth. A ‘circus’ by this definition is when several roads meet, and has nothing to do with elephants or murderous men in greasepaint, packed into a Volkswagen. Back in the old days, you’d see some classy Edwardian buildings and an iconic clock packed around this oval roundabout. Now you see this thing.

The inside looks like any other shopping mall. It’s this one façade, the one that sits right behind the historic bombed-out Charles Church, that offends a number of residents. It reminds me of the wall tile in the boys’ room at my elementary school: institutional and strict. That the panels pull back ever-so-slightly to indicate that there may be better design inside is nothing more than an insult to any pedestrian unfortunate enough to have to look at this angle.

Opal Court, a residential building for the more unfortunate students at the University of Leicester, won the 2007 prize. I like the color motif – focus on beige, grey and white, with a smack of blue, just to keep residents from throwing themselves off the roof. I can understand the giant white beams holding up the overhanging roof, but the two supports extending from the ground are either a poorly-planned decorative addition or a suggestion that perhaps the architect hadn’t quite mastered the skill of constructing a large rectangular block that will stand on its own.

The Radisson SAS Waterfront Hotel, located in Saint Helier, Jersey, took the 2008 prize. I don’t know – this isn’t the most offensive crime against architecture I’ve seen. Sure, from above it’s just an L-shaped building with a big hinge at the joint. And it’s deceptive because that little frill above the hinge part almost makes it look like there should be a kick-ass helicopter pad on the roof (there isn’t), but is this building that heinous?

The hotel isn’t winning any awards, I’ll give it that. It did make the news this year though, when a drunken bonehead thought it’d be a fun idea to leap into the hotel’s six-foot, 12,000 liter fish tank. He got away with it too. All that architectural blahness and they couldn’t squeeze in some decent security?

Now we’re talking. The 2009 Carbuncle Cup winner is the Liverpool Ferry Terminal, which not only functions as a vital component to the city’s trade and economy, but also houses a Beatles museum on the second floor. I’m just guessing here, but there are probably dozens of Beatles museums on a lot of second floors in the city of Liverpool. Where’s the local love for Kim Cattrall?

The problem with this building is that it’s located on the sacred ground of a UNESCO heritage site, right across from the magnificent Three Graces complex. I find it hard to hate this one, as it’s simply more interesting to look at than most buildings in my city. It has a couple unflattering angles, but I’m going to side against the Carbuncle people on this one.

The Strata, which stands over Southwark, London, like a mighty tube of charcoal lipstick, claimed the Cup in 2010. A thousand residents call this architectural atrocity (or, architrocity) home. All this but only a one-floor parking garage? I’m hoping that’s a typo.

Those three circles up top aren’t just there to look pretty – which is good, because they don’t. They serve a purpose. The three wind turbines inside are expected to generate enough energy to power the common areas of the building. There’s a rainwater collection and recycling system, and the panels around the outside are thermally protecting the building’s innards. This thing has won numerous awards for eco-brilliance; it’s a shame they didn’t make the thing look a little sharper.

MediaCityUK won the 2011 prize, but I’m not going to focus on that – from what I can tell, they gave the award to a collection of dull buildings. But I have an issue with this – Phoenix High School in London was in the running for the Cup that year. This building is asymmetrical, bold and daring. I went to a high school where the only architectural feature was a twenty-foot-high totem pole outside the front door. Otherwise, it was as bland and brick and blah as anything.

I think it’s great that the UK has such a wide swath of architectural options to choose from that Building Design magazine can pick such quirky numbers to rag on once a year. Sometimes I think their venom is, however, slightly misplaced.

The 2012 winner isn’t even a building – I call foul on this one too. They picked the restored Cutty Sark ship that is permanently fixed in the Greenwich region of southeast London. During its 2007 renovations, the ship burned to the ground… or to the water, I guess. It has since been rebuilt and once again turned into a museum.

I’ll say it again – the UK is lucky to have buildings like this to soundly deride. I don’t know if the massive Shard skyscraper will make this year’s list (it was finished in 2012 but technically opened this past February), but I’ll disagree once again if it does.

After all, this is what I have to look at every day:

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