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It’s time to put the Carbuncle Cup out of its misery

Paul Finch

This wretched ‘trophy’ is the product of mental idleness rather than genuine thought about how architecture absorbs and reflects culture, says Paul Finch

The self-important worthies who bore us rigid each year with prognostications about bad architecture are at it again. The brigade behind the Carbuncle Cup – run by a rival publisher – have the UBS building by Make in their sights, and it will be surprising if it doesn’t carry off the smelly little trophy.

Certainly the headquarters complex at Broadgate is big. It is assertive. And from the point of view of the CC jury it has the advantage of representing the forces of capitalism and commercial architecture and they, of course, are bad. Ever since Ken Shuttleworth left the Foster tribe, the nastier elements in the poison-pen culture of blogs and tweets have had it in for him. No matter that the practice is run on John Lewis Partnership lines rather than conventional top-down ownership, these people design offices.

5 Broadgate, London, by Make Architects

5 Broadgate, London, by Make Architects

5 Broadgate, London, by Make Architects

This was ok when Ken was designing them for Norman, but now it isn’t. Thus the sentimentalisation of the Arup Associates buildings, demolished in order to keep UBS not just in Broadgate, but in the City of London. Of course Peter Foggo’s class Broadgate act was for speculative offices, not a known user. Indeed that is why Arup had to have a board meeting to take a decision as to whether they would work with a speculative property developer on the project, Stuart Lipton.

They decided they would do so, but that attitude of suspicion, an example of the cultural apartheid that meant anyone who did commercial work must be a bad architect, is alive and well. Those who control the CC seem to know next to nothing about commercial architecture, hate it, campaign against it and only keep quiet when a self-evidently ‘good’ architect, like Eric Parry, wins a commission to design the tallest tower in the City of London, demolishing the rather good CU tower in the process.

The predictable tone of the CC nominations is echoed by the predictability of the results. The judges don’t get out much, so the focus is generally on London. If you can attack a big name, all the better, hence the ludicrous abuse poured on the Cutty Sark project by Grimshaw. Commercial uses are a red rag to a bull, hence the campaign against another ‘winner’, the Tesco store with apartments above at Woolwich, a brave and successful attempt to revive a benighted town centre,  which I supported while sitting on the design review panel which assessed the plan.

Residents may have voted with their feet in buying and renting space in the Elephant and Castle ‘Darth Vader’ tower, and it may have put that location on the mental map of many who didn’t realise how central the area is. But it didn’t stop a faction of the Miserablist Tendency from awarding it the CC. OK so the windmill blades at the top are never used – better a fertile error than a sterile accuracy, in my view.

London's Strata tower

London’s Strata tower

BFLS’s Strata Tower at Elephant and Castle

The worst sort of architecture is that which is cynical, exploitative, dull and which stifles rather than enables. Moronic comments about UBS and its deep plan (shock horror, a City of London banking building has trading floors) ignore the obvious commitment to architecture and to construction quality that have gone into the building. You don’t have to like the result, but at least think about the programme, the challenges and the rationale behind what has been built. Ditto the other examples given above.

My real objection to the CC is that it is the product of mental idleness rather than genuine thought about the way in which architecture both absorbs and reflects culture, economics, fashion and the myriad other elements which inform the way we now live, work and play.

By the way, the creepy CC deference to the Prince of Wales in the choice of name ignores the fact that the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ was lifted by the Prince, to describe ABK’s National Gallery extension. He lifted it from a novel by the step-mother of Princess Diana, no less than that towering literary figure, Barbara Cartland.

The cup, possibly along with her books, should be binned.


Readers' comments (11)

  • Paul Finch is being frightfully polite - but, surely, a touch paranoid; criticism of the new Broadgate building doesn't have to be ascribed to dislike of the forces of capitalism, or of commercial architecture per se - it's just that one person's 'big' & 'assertive' is some people's 'monstrous' - regardless of the functional justification and quality of detailing..
    Sadly, there is an understandable tendency to associate this example of overbearing architecture with the less attractive aspects of capitalism, but who's fault is that?
    To take a more extreme example, should criticism of the colossal megastructure that Nicolae & Elena Ceausescu inserted in the centre of Bucharest be written off as sour grapes from people with a political agenda?

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  • I agree that making assumptions about quality of architecture on the basis of politics is risky -- Terragni produced a great building even if it was for Fascists. That grandiose stuff in Bucharest was scarcely in the same league, and had considerably less functional justification than the UBS block, if any.

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  • It's all displacement activity.
    make sure architects et al are busy ripping each others work to shreds a la college crit, whilst the profession is being taken apart by replacement services and project managers.

    Literally fiddling whilst Rome burns.
    When is the profession going to act collectively and focus on the real issue for RIBA and its membership - Architects - the value they can create in so many dimensions and the highly relevant and irreplaceable services they offer.
    Instead they would rather slag off each other's work like year 2 students.
    Wake up!

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  • I acknowledge your argument, but it really is down to the fact that the nominated buildings are just ugly and badly designed. That includes the Woolwich Tesco Flats (thanks for that). Plain and Simple.

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  • Click bait. Architects deserve a taste of what most people think of most modern buildings taht are put up. They are simply not good enough.

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  • Vague stream of consciousness follows.
    Issues that the Carbuncle Cup has:

    1. It is simplistic.
    2. It doesn't encourage deep debate about the context and root/cause of bad schemes and the situations that cause them.
    3. It causes grief to some people; mainly those involved in the projects that are nominated each year.
    4. It reduces complex issues down to a list.

    All of these are inward-looking, self-regarding and self-serving of the world of architecture.

    But there are rather more useful positives than negatives. The Cup engages people outside the architectural bubble and asks them to hold to account, as I posited elsewhere, low-quality "crap that is foisted upon them".

    It is a rare chance for those not engaged to be engaged. True, it may be reactive and not particularly constructive. But if architects, planners and clients keep building stuff that irritates those who have to suffer its presence for decades to come, then they must be prepared for any criticism and opinion that comes their way as a result. Build crap that the public hates - and you'll be told that it is crap.

    Complaining that "Moronic comments about UBS and its deep plan" feels a little patronising. Apologies for my moronity, but when I look at that vast block obliterating the scene I don't joyfully revel in the delightful "commitment to architecture and to construction quality", I see an appalling commission and an appalling result. It is not just the architect's fault of course, it is systemic - it is in the brief. But the result is that we have a carbuncle.

    If you don't like the Carbuncle Cup and want to snuff out populist criticism of buildings, then perhaps start up an alternative Educated Carbuncle Cup on which only those who really truly understand the nuanced difficulties that the architectural profession has may comment. That really sounds *just* the sort of thing to engage the nation. The Carbuncle Cup is not click-bait, it's a chance to be heard.

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  • Populist is the right word, often applied in respect of discrimination and capital punishment.

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  • I doubt Tim meant populist, but even if he did he makes good points. The carbuncle cup for all its faults does highlight why so many lay observers think there are many poorly designed and unattractive buildings. Make's office and the city's desire to hold onto UBS are irrelevant.

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  • But the CC is not run and organized by lay observers. They are critics who are slumming.

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  • Bleugh, ill application of the wrong term there.

    CC mightn't be run or organised by lay observers but it certainly aims to engage with them, and it does. Bad buildings are forced among the people and this is a place for them to be held to account by those affected.

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