Carbuncle Cup conundrum

20 Fenchurch St., London, is a carbuncle on the face of a beloved friend. (BD)

20 Fenchurch St., London, is a carbuncle on the face of a beloved friend. (BD)

In Britain the Carbuncle Cup goes to the ugliest building of the year. The name recalls Prince Charles’s famous and much-beloved line, “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-beloved and elegant friend,” that he applied to a proposed addition to the National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square.

This year’s winner is 20 Fenchurch St., in London, designed by Rafael Viñoly, who designed the Birdshitcatcher Building in Providence (that’s Brown’s Watson Center for International Studies, whose windows cant outward) before he became a certified (and certifiable) starchitect.

Before it opened, the building’s odd shape, wider at the top, had people calling it the Walkie-Talkie building. Then, after its concave façade focused the sun’s rays so as to burn a Jaguar, concentrating enough heat on nearby sidewalks to fry an egg, it has since been known as the Walkie-Scorchie, and now that it is generating street winds strong enough to topple pedestrians it might as well also be called the Walkie-Fallie building.

Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright’s piece, “Carbuncle Cup: Walkie-Talkie wins prize for worst building of the year,” is filled with deft, disdainful one-liners that make one wonder where he is the rest of the year, when the Carbuncle Cup’s winner is not being announced. Indeed, what is it about the Walkie-Talkie that distinguishes it from every other modernist piece of crap that’s ever been inflicted on Britain or anywhere else? What? Please tell!

The Carbuncle Cup is sponsored annually by Building Design magazine, which also takes the modernist slap in the face without complaint 51 out of 52 weeks a year. The cup, which goes to a modernist building every year, must serve some complex psychological need to address certain issues most architects and builders face day in and day out because they get paid well to inflict ugliness on their communities. But this year is different.

This year one finalist for the cup was an inarguably beautiful building, pictured at the end of this post. The Whittle Building was designed for Cambridge University by John Simpson, who also designed the proposed (and lovely) new architecture school for Notre Dame. Here is what the (unidentified) nominator said in explanation of its nomination for the cup:

Part oil sheik’s palace, part home counties accountancy firm headquarters, wholly tasteless. … What could have been a great opportunity to build an exciting, modern building suited to the needs of students has been squandered on this unimaginative, mock-neo-gothic carbuncle. … It is the architectural equivalent of the car Homer designs in The Simpsons.

Birdwood, Cambridge. (Flickr.com)

Birdwood, Cambridge. (Flickr.com)

No fair! Indeed, ridiculous.

But I know why the Whittle is a finalist: very simple. It replaced a modernist building, the Birdwood (at left), that would have won a Carbuncle itself if the cup had existed when it was built in the 1930s. Go ahead, deny if you must. That’s the reason why the Whittle is a finalist for the Carbuncle. Say it again: The Whittle is a finalist for the Carbuncle. The very statement is a contradiction in terms, an absurdity, an outrage.

But modern architecture and everything that pertains to it – including the Carbuncle Cup – requires a doctorate in stupidity and dishonesty to understand. This cup should at least be sponsored by an organization that understands the difference between beauty and ugliness, and why one is preferable to the other.

Whittle Building, Peterhouse, Cambridge University. (John Simpson Architects)

Whittle Building, Peterhouse, Cambridge University. (John Simpson Architects)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Carbuncle Cup conundrum

  1. Erik Bootsma says:

    You should check out the excellent coffee table book by Gavin Stamp “Britain’s Lost Cities”. As he explains much of England was lost not necessarily by the Luftwaffe, but by the modernist architects and modernist traffic planners after the war. Much was still able to be preserved but many were simply wiped away, including many beautiful intact buildings.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Britains-Lost-Cities-Gavin-Stamp-x/dp/1845132645

    Like

  2. abdaigle says:

    Over half the buildings in that picture are carbuncles. Which means that too much of London is changing from a beautiful place to an ugly one. Is this the tipping point?

    Like

    • Ann, I am afraid the tipping point was reached decades ago as the demolition project known as the Battle of Britain was infilled with modestly sized modernist buildings. What has gone up in recent decades is far worse, with worse still on the horizon, but I think London ceased being a lovely city in the way Paris and Rome are long ago. There are still many stunningly beautiful places in London, and of course stunningly beautiful buildings and other structures, but the city itself is no longer a beautiful work of city-building.

      Like

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