Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

The Carbuncle Cup: why architecture needs a wooden spoon

Catherine Slessor
  • 2 Comments

Whatever the shortcomings of architecture’s answer to the Razzies, at least the Carbuncle Cup sheds light on the real and deplorable state of architecture, says Catherine Slessor

When Prince Charles casually tossed his ‘carbuncle’ grenade into the debate about the extension to London’s National Gallery, he could scarcely have imagined his pustular epithet would become permanently cemented in the public mind with bad architecture.

Latterly, it has been hijacked by the Carbuncle Cup, an annual award for the worst British building run under the mischievous auspices of Building Design (this year’s winner, Lincoln Plaza in Canary Wharf, was revealed today). Greatly diminished from its swashbuckling heyday as a fearless news seeker, incubator of young writers and rival to the AJ, BD is now reduced to a pathetically shrunken online-only presence. Yet the Carbuncle Cup endures, as a kind of defiant V-sign to architecture and architects. There’s life in the old digital dog yet, it seems to say.

While the nation is obliged to stoically grin and bear it, the Carbuncle Cup is a blessed interlude when the usual rules of critical propriety do not apply

Personally, I find the annual quest to seek out Britain’s worst building incomparably therapeutic. Where to start, you ask yourself, surveying a public realm assailed by an insidious tsunami of the dreadful, the dull, the dismal and the dire. While the nation is obliged to stoically grin and bear it, the Carbuncle Cup is a blessed interlude when something snaps inside and the usual rules of critical propriety do not apply.

Some might regard it as a cheap exercise in tabloid trolling that takes no account of the complexities and contradictions of the design process, in which architects are merely hapless pawns, buffeted by bad clients, bad briefs and bad legislation. Yet who could argue against the guilty pleasure of witnessing the pomposity of the great and the good being pricked or the hubris of provincial nonentities witheringly exposed? After all, these purveyors of ordure are paid for what they do. And, unlike genuine ordure, bad buildings cannot be swept away. 

Though no architect probably wants to win the uncoveted trophy, over the years the imprimatur of the Carbuncle has assumed a kind of terrible cachet, like the Razzies for films or the Bad Sex Award for the naffest account of coitus in fiction, most recently claimed by Morrissey for the description of his ‘bulbous salutation’. Last year’s Carbuncle equivalent of Morrissey was the Walkie Talkie, a bulbous salutation whose venal priapism has comprehensively shafted London’s skyline. 

Lincoln plaza carbuncle cup credit matt buck flickr

Lincoln plaza carbuncle cup credit matt buck flickr

Source: Matt Buck / Flickr

Lincoln Plaza at Canary Wharf, London

This year’s six-strong shortlist included Make’s unforgivably Brobdingnagian incursion into Broadgate, a batch of migraine-inducing commercial pap and God’s Portakabin, an ineffably beige extension to a Methodist church in Poole, whipped up by a practice rejoicing in the name of Intelligent Design Centre. Sadly, you couldn’t make it up. And, tempting though it is to submit this sorry sextet to the cruel whims of a public vote, there was, in fact, a properly constituted judging process with a panel who evaluated the contenders and delivered a final damning verdict.

Look beyond the winners in the spotlight and you will stumble upon a shadowy salon des refusés, packed with stuff that would make your hair curl

The Carbuncle Cup is not perfect. But it does raise the issue of how do you call out bad buildings or bad processes in today’s emasculated media climate. Anonymous internet sniping offers momentary release but is not taken seriously. Television is now house porn and travelogues. And most newspapers are dispensing with coverage of architecture altogether although, ironically, stunts like the Carbuncle Cup will momentarily pique their jaded interest. 

For commercial as much as intellectual reasons, most architectural magazines prefer to emphasise the positive, through well-oiled conduits of awards programmes that celebrate achievement with the gritted intensity of a small-time beauty pageant. But look beyond the winners in the spotlight and you will stumble upon a shadowy salon des refusés, packed with stuff that would make your hair curl. Here, lurking offstage yet omnipresent, is the real state of architecture. The Carbuncle Cup merely nudges open the doors to the salon to let in the light.  

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • "Greatly diminished from its swashbuckling heyday as a fearless news seeker, incubator of young writers and rival to the AJ, BD is now reduced to a pathetically shrunken online-only presence." Ouch......been kinder pulling out a knife.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • An enjoyable and insightful piece, destroyed by this cheap and unworthy crack; "BD is now reduced to a pathetically shrunken online-only presence." This, from a magazine reduced to publishing an undated paper version once a fortnight.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.