The Ugly Truth

Two modern buildings in Melbourne, both of which I have visited and admired, have been named by recent surveys as among the world’s ugliest.

Great emotion can be generated by the appearance of buildings. Reference Prince Charles for instance. He turned up as a royal person at the Royal institute of Architects conference in London a few years ago. He opined that ‘when Hitler bombed London, he had the decency to leave just piles of rubble.  You architects not only destroy buildings but replace them with monstrosities’.  The extension to the National Gallery, at the edge of Trafalgar Square he described as ‘a carbuncle on an old friend.’

The subsequent debate was welcome though, as the real worry of us architects is that people just don’t notice buildings.  The Prince of Wails, can’t have been too serious though, as his identified architectural vandals such as Normal Foster and Richard Rogers received knighthoods. (Foster is now Lord Norman and has a helicopter).

‘Beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ are of course personal perceptions. Thinking about this over a fine pinot at the Tasting Room, I have concluded that symmetry has a lot to do with it. Physical beauty is about symmetry. The face, for instance. That the eyes are the same size and are located equidistantly from either side of the nose is important.  The mouth should not be lopsided and a limp should not be evident in the walk.  There is a vertical axis about which the elements are ‘balanced’

In building terms, the Taj Mahal, St.Peters and the Empire State, fit this principle and are uncontroversial, but the Pixel Building and Federation Square do not. I remember crying with disbelief when I visited Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. It is an architectural aurora borealis, a sunset, and a visual music masterpiece.

It is not symmetrical.

In my view, symmetry may well apply to humans, but there is a worrying progression from Palladio to Albert Speer.

Albert  said that ‘the role of architects is to bring order to a chaotic world’ (I suspect he may have been the influence behind the design of the Wellington Railway Station).

He was one of a few members of the Nazi inner circle that was not executed after Nuremburg.

I like Boris Johnson, and I am happy to see he was recently re-elected mayor of London. To celebrate the Olympics, he commissioned a crazy and very big thing by celebrated sculptor Anish Kapoor, already nicknamed ‘Boris’s Folly’. Cleverly it has been promoted as a ‘sculpture’ rather than a ‘building’, even though it contains a restaurant.

He got away with it.

Interestingly there is no comment from HRH the Prince of Wales.

So there we are, I suggest there is a perception out there, that buildings need to be symmetrical, whilst  sculptures  don’t.