A new prize in architecture

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Centre Pompidou, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, in Paris. (Christian Science Monitor)

ArchNewsNow.com – the indispensable source of architecture commentary from around the world – is running a series responding to a petition by British architecture students dismayed at the reluctance of architecture schools to become more involved in political issues, especially climate change. The articles suggest changes in architecture curricula, reform in architecture’s conception of itself, and just about every point between. The series is curated by Nikos Salingaros, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas who lectures globally on such theories as how neurobiology suggests architecture’s close relationship to nature.

Perhaps the most provocative article among those run so far by ANN suggests that a new prize be instituted for students of architecture. Dr. Theodore Dalrymple, author of “An Implicit Rather than Explicit Model for Teaching Architecture,” is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. He opens his essay with some lines from Emily Dickinson, the final couplet of which hints at the curious nature of his proposed prize:

The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.

Here is how Dalrymple describes the prize:

I would institute an annual prize, with substantial cash awards, for architecture students who would be given the task of designing a building that surpasses an iconic monstrosity in ugliness.

Huh? I did a double, no, a triple take on that. Design a building to surpass an iconic monstrosity in ugliness? I thought there must have been a mental typo in that description. Needless to say, Dalrymple’s string of trigger warnings and spoiler alerts went over my head. Yes, he does want students to be tasked with designing a new building even uglier than the one specified each year as the model, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

But why? Dalrymple notes that “[j]ust as satire is dangerous these days because it is so easily transformed into policy,” the winning designs might end up actually being built. He then states his reasons why such a prize might nonetheless be useful:

[T]he student would have to think seriously about aesthetics and what makes a building graceful or hideous, what makes it adapted to its surrounding and adaptable to many purposes, what is human and inhuman, what is a proper scale, the inherent beauties or otherwise of various materials to be employed, and so forth.

All judgment is comparative, said Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the competition would force students to look about them and formulate at least rough-and-ready rules of the beautiful and its opposite. It has long been my practice to look closely at second-rate art, the better to appreciate the first-rate. And to design something worse than the Centre Pompidou – or the many other models one could name – would require real talent and imagination, not the terrible conformism of which I hear so much.

It may be objected that no student, knowing about architecture school and entering it nevertheless, could possibly be talented and imaginative enough to submit an entry. To which the natural objection is: if just a single such student exists and can be thus discovered, the prize would be worthwhile.

Dalrymple’s proposal for this prize may really be an exercise in irony. If so, it is deft beyond my ken. Leading up to his prize proposal, he proceeds through mounting levels of outrage at the asinine mentality of almost all architecture schools around the world, which, alas, generates the need for a prize of this sort. As expressed by Dalrymple, this tragedy is a comic masterpiece.

Students of architecture, take note! And notes – for your funnybone, at least, will demand that you read the whole thing.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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3 Responses to A new prize in architecture

  1. barry schiller says:

    The Pompidou Center pictured is not just itself ugly, I feel it uglified the surrounding area with an atmosphere of littler, grossly overpriced fast food, and an atmosphere conducive to punks. I’d skip it if I ever returned to Paris.
    The ugliest thing at RISD-Brown for me is he courtyard adjacent to the South Main St entrance to the RISD Museum. I’m amazed and appalled every time I go by.
    Oh well, time to stop thinking about these places and enjoy the holidays!


  2. Peter Van Erp says:

    Locally, Brown and RISD seem to be in competition to build the ugliest building on College Hill. RISD just surpassed the longtime prize holder (the Brown Sci Li) with their new North dorm. The posted renderings indicate that Brown is determined to retake the prize with the new Performing Arts Center.


    • Brown had been “winning” that contest for years. For years, RISD was relatively modest in its attacks upon the fabric. Since the Moneo monstrosity, no longer. What’s that infestation of insect larvae in the rear lot of RISD’s Washington Trust Building supposed to be?


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