Global Architecture: Incongruous Excrescences

by David Hamilton (October 2011)

One of Edmund Burke's famous quotes from Reflections on the Revolution in France sums up the contemporary official attitude to architecture and planning: “I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.” This is the universal versus the particular.

I am promoting a Conservative view of architecture and town planning which advocates the design of new buildings by developing from the traditional styles that already exist in diverse towns and cities rather than forcing incongruous buildings into a round hole: the exploitation of cities across the world for a Global style of architecture. There is enough disjuncture in British urbiscapes as it is after the Second World War blitzes and sixty years of depredations by local councils without adding incongruous excrescences to it.

It is difficult to get a hearing for a non-orthodox idea. The Liberal-Marxist online journal Spiked would not use an article I wrote as an alternative view to an article praising The Shard. They complimented it but asked me to chop it down and send it as letter! Why suppress a different point of view? The catalyst was an interesting piece by Tim Abrahams. (1)

Mr. Abraham's essay is enthusiastic about skyscrapers for London and gives an insight the background to the design of The Shard. It was originally planned to be an even taller building but planning permission was refused in 2000. The developers then brought in a new architect, Renzo Piano, to get the project through because Lord Rogers, who Piano had worked with on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, was an adviser to the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who was keen to change London.

Livingstone had also supported the plans the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council had to redesign Sloane Square by creating two large piazzas connected with the buildings on each side of the square to replace the isolated central space. Livingstone also had plans to redesign ten of London's famous Squares. The residents of Sloane Square are highly articulate and professional people and defeated the plan. However ordinary communities have to suffer constant change and being uprooted.

Funding for The Shard is from Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, who, agreed to provide a funding facility to LBQ Ltd, the Jersey registered holding company that is developing the Shard and London Bridge Place. The quantum of the loan is not disclosed.

Karl Sharro, a London based architect also mocked Prince Charles in an article for Spiked. It is a classic of modern ideological thinking and contempt for a country's traditions and the style of architecture that has developed there with the usual mocking arrogance and wild hyperbole. (2)

The Shard will be three times the height of St. Paul's Cathedral, thus cocking a snook at Prince Charles, who is a great lover of the magnificent Cathedral with its prominent dome.

The topic sentences in Mr. Abrahams article were:”the Shard is a feat of engineering and an important reminder that construction is a complex process. The revealing of the innards of the building has captured the imagination of visitors and residents of London: many have been enthralled at realising the process behind building skyscrapers, which are built around a concrete lift core.”

When evaluating contemporary buildings reviewers commonly confuse engineering with architecture. The second sentence about “revealing the innards of the building” tells us it is part of a contemporary fashion.

Renzo Piano in naming the building used the term of contempt for “The Shard” coined by English Heritage, the advisory body to the government on historical preservation, his opponents, – The Shard!

Like other new skyscrapers it caters for the new rich. I am no Egalitarian but what we are seeing is the overthrow of local people and their culture and traditions for wealthy people who will not mix with them. The cost for an apartment at the tapered top of the building will be around £10million.

The contemporary fad is not only to build ugly, but silly or just ridiculous buildings that are bizarre and without character. The Selfridges building in Birmingham's Bullring Shopping Centre was voted the ugliest building in the country. It looks like a giant silver slug oozing past the Shopping Centre, and it glowers inhospitably at visitors entering the city.

These excrescences or an unattractive or superfluous addition or feature, have no lineage and grow out of no tradition but seemingly erupt like boils with no relation to the local character or the aggregate of features and traits that form the local ambience of an area and its community. A community no less than an individual has a particular nature from its past, its history, local culture and traditions. These universal buildings are growths that undermine and jar with the local ambience. They usually open with protests from local residents and calls for them to be demolished immediately.

Some examples of Global architecture: Lord Rogers', Millennium Dome (now the 02 Arena) in London, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, USA, and the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea – these are buildings which undermine the local character of the different areas and weaken local cultures and traditions and thereby dissociate local people. The Ryugyong Hotel was unoccupied for two decades, might never have been occupied.

It has 3,000 rooms, a series of three grey 328-foot long concrete wings shaped into a steep pyramid, with 75 degree sides that rise to an apex of 1,083 feet, known as The Hotel of Doom (also The Phantom Hotel and The Phantom Pyramid). In 1987, Baikdoosan Architects and Engineers made an optimistic start but over twenty years later, despite North Korea investing more than two percent of its gross domestic product in the project, it was never occupied, opened, nor ever finished.

Global buildings are constructed in diverse communities but share common features: they are extremely expensive, most were thought to be futuristic designs, and they divide opinion amongst local residents, architects, and the wider public. They are neither popular nor respected and are mocked and given nicknames because they do not look like what they are supposed to be. They have the effect of reducing the prestige of a city and making it look odd or silly. They are exciting for a time but it is a temporary excitement, yet the loss of prestige is permanent as the cities become disjointed by piecemeal developments and the local communities dissociated. This is not the grandeur of the great cathedrals, built in a higher cause, the glory of God, which is why they pointed to the heavens; but overstatement, arrogance, built to aggrandize individuals or an architects company or by interest groups to the detriment of a town or city.

Another Global horror is The Cube in Birmingham, the traditional home of both cold and grey as well as silly buildings. It has been said that the architects who designed Birmingham were influenced by the cigarette packets and cigarette lighters they had on their desks because so many of the city's buildings were shaped like cigarette packets and cigarette lighters. The Cube self-promotion blurb bears no relation to the common perception:

“Standing tall on the architectural world stage, The Cube, has transformed Birmingham’s skyline, raised its global profile and signifies a new era in the city’s evolution.”

It is instructive that these buildings always win awards. Just listen to this gushing twaddle: “inspired by the vision of award winning architect, Ken Shuttleworth, this most prestigious landmark building animates the canal side offering cutting edge design and breathtaking views in a designer neighbourhood”… apparently, its “intricate glowing tessellations blanket the exterior facade, to be admired from afar. Inside this fascinating ‘jewellery box”.

Like The Shard it aims for the new elitism – “a rich mix of slick residential apartments, exclusive retail, extensive office space, boutique hotel, private spa, a hi-tech automated car park and the city’s first rooftop restaurant reside.” Upmarket is the American term which refers to what we would in England describe as vulgar: money without taste.

The Cube is seen as “prestigious, world famous architecture such as London’s Swiss building known as ‘The Gherkin’, Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank and 55 Baker Street. A confident statement for a confident city.” To most people it just looks silly.

Architecture gives an impression of a place in people's minds. It makes a statement as they say. Birmingham was voted the ugliest city in the country in a national poll. That followed the city's Bullring Shopping Centre and Central Library being named as the number one and two ugliest buildings in the country. That was the current “Brutalist” library from 1974.

A new Library is being built but this is not so much ugly as ridiculous. It looks like Colditz wrapped in barbed wire. (3) Birmingham, it is said, used to look like Paris until the irrational scheme in the 1950s to make it an international city left it decultured and without an identity – an example to the rest of the country of what not to do.

Manchester is at it too! They have several which exemplify my point about these universal styles disjointing the overall ambience. Islington Wharf is one.

Heron Tower in London is another rupture of the character of the city and our inherited architectural traditions. It dwarfs St. Paul's Cathedral and the little Georgian church of St Botolph, Bishopsgate, and its surrounding churchyard, which are just over the road. It stands next to The Gherkin and The Cheese Grater who stand incongruous in London like The Three Witches from Macbeth.
Architect KPF designed the building which has upset people because it is another one dwarfing St. Paul's Cathedral. It is yet another skyscraper destroying London's character and presenting a muddled and disjointed skyline devoid of charm, grace and beauty but redolent with muddled and incompatible buildings. It has a 70,000 litre aquarium and what is becoming an obligatory shark. If Burj Dubai has gimmicks then these must follow suit.

St Paul's is one of the most beautiful building in London and, despite the high-rise buildings around it, you can still visualise what it would have looked like when it was built – a beautiful big Swan surrounded by ducks. London's officials are allowing the destruction of that.

In March 2007, it was stated that Heron had signed a funding deal with the State General Reserve Fund of the Sultanate of Oman to provide the equity for the development. Skanska, the firm that built The Gherkin, were main contractor.

KPF are an International architectural practice recognised for design excellence and innovation in their buildings throughout the world, with offices in New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, & Abu Dhabi

One of the ugliest muddles I have ever seen is St. George's Wharf, in London. How architects can be so crass, planners be so benighted and local councillors so contemptuous of their cities, defeats me. To the contrary, St. George's website rejoices that:

”With breathtaking views and stunning apartments, shimmering on the waterfront with its fantastic architecture and design, St George Wharf is one of the most sought after riverside developments in London! “

The views may well be “breathtaking” but the architecture and design are repulsive.

There have been breaks in architectural styles when a new style takes over throughout history but these excrescences bear no relation at all to precious styles, neighbouring buildings nor the characteristic scale and are destroying the character, ambience and culture our towns and cities.

Jean Nouvel's One New Change in the City is another muddle that is ruining local character by being dumped between two historic Wren churches – St Mary le Bow and St Paul's. (4)

A standard development that has the usual high street shopping malls and a champagne bar which show the lack of imagination of planners, developers and architects. A Victor Heal building was demolished to make way for it. Like the others its has a stunning view, but only from the inside looking out. If any should make a mistake and look the other way they would be appalled.

In an interview with The Guardian, The City of London's planning officer, Peter Rees, said the shopping centre would help confirm that the City has shed its bowler-hatted image. “The City has become a much more rounded place. The quality of food available and the entertainment and leisure facilities have improved, and we're bringing shopping back to the City. It's not just a place to work any longer.” It certainly is not just a place to work. It is being turned into a place with diminishing character and identity whose main attraction to visitors now is somewhere to go be disappointed. Whoever thought London was city of bowler-hatted people?

The Strata building plopped in the middle of The Elephant and Castle is out of place, a freak alone in a run down area not regenerating it but mocking it. It would have been better renovating the existing buildings from the 1960s, which are generally sound but neglected.

One Hyde Park cost £500 million and took five years for architects 3XN and AEW to build. It has been described as a:” “Great location but money can't buy you taste!”and derided by Building Design for having “sterile gardens”, “desolate spaces” and the “barren feel of a corporate plaza.”

BBC's Salford-based regional headquarters by Wilkinson Eyre, Chapman Taylor and Fairhurst Design Group cost £600 million to build and was described by Building Design editor Ellis Woodman: “Visiting Media City UK, it is hard to see how the corporation could set their aspirations any lower. How uncreative can a 'Creative Quarter' be?”

As a reminder of what beauty and grandeur are I have added a view of St. Paul's from down the River Thames showing two of the ugly sisters waiting for the third, Heron Tower, to join them. It shows clearly the ruining of the London skyline. Nearby is a host of threatening cranes: The cranes of destruction.

We have a sense of beauty, balance and harmony from God and these new buildings contravene that. We are being dissociated from our communities in towns and cities by architecture that jars with and offends our inborn need to belong and for the familiar. Contemporary architecture dissociates people and makes them feel out of place in their home towns. Our Urbiscapes are being disjointed by new developments that have no relation to their surroundings or preceding buildings. To Aristotle the golden mean was the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. To the Greeks the Mean was an attribute of beauty which, they believed, had three aspects: symmetry, proportion, and harmony. That is a useful way to judge new buildings. I would also look for character, something individual but which nevertheless fits in. Scale is important as our traditional scale here is different from that in other countries. The great buildings were superior to contemporary ones because they made proficient use of decoration and ornament as our Cathedrals and churches show.

What architects need to do, be they international or otherwise, is respect the character of the towns and cities they are designing for and and develop continuity not turn them into characterless muddles with disjunctive buildings nor is it necessary to let architectural anarchy ruin harmony, balance and proportion. The local authorities are supposed to represent their communities not international corporations. I mentioned Aristotle now it is time to mention Plato. What is happening here is as he warned in book eight, chapter four of his famous work The Republic, our democracy is becoming an oligarchy.

I have written previously that: “Local councillors are only elected by a minority of voters and are not therefore fully representative of the public and we need an office appointed by the Crown like a lord lieutenant with responsibility for protecting communities not factions of it. The Office of the Lord-Lieutenant dates from the 16th Century and has the force of tradition behind it at a time when we are victims of unrestrained change for profit at our communities’ expense.”

That was offering a Conservative vision for the future but what can be done now, in practice, is to campaign for a return to local democracy where the elected officials put the interests of their communities first.


(1) Tim Abrahams is associate editor of Blueprint, the UK’s leading magazine of architecture and design





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