Modern Architecture and Ugliness

Edwin Harwood

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The Barbican Centre, London

It has been voted the ugliest building in London, a city which has had
more criminally distasteful erections than Jimmy Saville. I attended a
debate at the Barbican centre for the battle of ideas conference on
the subject of conflict between architectural modernisation and
preservation. As I approached the sprawling, barbaric, Brutalist
beast, whose concrete entrails spill forth in every direction, I was
deeply disgusted in a palpably physical sense. The only redeeming
features, the conservatory and ponds, are those which rely on the
inherent and eternal beauty of nature. The building itself wilfully
ignores the history of the land it was built upon; its construction,
therefore, was an act of hatred.

When HRM Queen Elizabeth II unveiled the building in 1983, she said,
“What has been created here must be one of the wonders of the modern
world.” She was right. It is a wonder that any nation would spend
millions on architecture so repulsive. The area had been devastated by
Nazi bombing but was not truly destroyed until Chamberlin, Powell and
Bon had gotten their claws into it. This unholy cathedral of neophilia
was the last death struggle of Brutalism, a movement which was by then
irrelevant, having owed so much to novelty from the start.

A quick show of hands revealed that I was the only one among the
audience to identify themselves as a “preservationist”. But even
preservationists are in favour of maintaining ghastly structures for
so flimsy a reason as that a few locals happen to be fond of it. Urban
designer, Alastair Donald, argued against the emotional justification
for preservation, on this and no further are we agreed. Another
moderniser present was Portuguese architectural designer, Luis
Pereira, who laments the medieval identity of parts of Portugal and
places like Florence and Venice, which are characterised by their
historical architecture. To Pereira and others like him, the
historical identity of European cities is an irritating obstacle to
progress and an embarrassing failure on the part of the populace, to
embrace these culturally vacuous new aesthetics. Such modernisers
would like to dwarf the once grand gothic and neo-classical horizon
beneath concrete, metal and glass obscenities.

The frequent vandalism of inner city tower blocks is evidence of the
effect they have on the human spirit. The inhabitants of those
venomous, vertical concentration camps respond to their design as apes
to a cage, thus they are strewn with piss and crudely rendered
graffiti. They are an insult to human dignity, more so than any
hastily erected shanty town, by way of their pre-meditative origin.
Gazing upon such mercilessly ugly monoliths is akin to the effect of
being informed of the death of a beloved friend. One feels the heart
sink, the stomach rise and the blood freeze as that ill-begotten image
penetrates the retina.

That tower blocks are crime-ridden and dirty, cannot simply be
understood as the effect of social inequality, for poor people are as
house proud as any other. They will maintain the beauty of their modest
homes, if there was any there, to begin with. The former slums of East
London Jewry are now nested by the new-media elite and their
gentrifying influence; these Victorian ghettoes are positively
luxurious by modern standards.

I was reminded of a speech made by Theodore Dalrymple the day before,
in which he denounced the equality of ugliness. An era obsessed with
utility, equality, and cultural diversity requires architecture with an
anti-historical identity. Since beauty is by definition elitist, this
has led to an insipid suspicion of all things beautiful; in both art
and the human body itself. How often we are encouraged to find beauty
in the most repulsive, wretched and deformed examples of humanity! It
is a corruption of the word! To love the rootless, the malformed and
the mutated is to love the spirit of modernity. The perverted
cacophilia which led to the erection of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit Tower of
Babel is the same as that which excites the audiences of amputee porn.
Gothic architecture in the form of cathedrals, universities and the
houses of parliament, all attract tourists from around the world to
marvel at their beauty. The Gothic and Romanesque landmarks are not
merely large (a vulgar expression of power expressed most crudely in
the American skyscraper and mimicked the world over) but are richly
adorned with ornamentation. These stylistic additions may be
superfluous from a utilitarian perspective but are essential when
considering the power that a cityscape has on its populace. The
Natural History Museum, with all its intricate detail and imposing
silhouette might be considered ostentatious by modern standards, but
it has inspired sheer joy to millions of Londoners for over a century.
Compare it to the holocaust museum in Berlin; as twisted as the mind
that made it. We now suffer the architecture of misery as a will to
equality; as Dalrymple put it, “They think that if we can’t all live
in a beautiful place, then we must all live in an ugly place.”

But in truth, I am neither moderniser nor preservationist. I see no
value in the misguided social projects of the mid-twentieth century
and would gleefully light the fuse for their destruction. Nor am I
averse to the construction of new and exciting buildings in the
historic city centres of Europe. Mussolini was a brave innovator in
this sense. He brought modern architecture to historical city centres
which, though fiercely modern and lacking the detail of the Roman
architecture from which it was derived, was deeply sympathetic to the
historical identity of the people of Italy.

Do I dare dream of a return of the Norman arch in England? Of a future
in which gothic spires once more dominate the skyline? The Gothic
revival that continued in early 20th century America and Canada
produced grand structures, fecundated with historical meaning, yet
glorious in their aspiration. Shining examples of what can be achieved
by human creativity and collaboration. The architecture that truly
defines an age of a people does not do away with the past, it builds
upon it.

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