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Ugly good, Traumkitsch bad

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What are the rules of attraction? Stephen Bayley’s Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, prompts Jay Merrick to consider what makes us see beauty in the beast

‘I never saw an ugly thing in my life,’ said the painter John Constable, ‘for let the form of the object be what it may – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.’ Constable, an avid reader of poetry, may have read these lines by his contemporary, William Wordsworth:

‘Oh, blank confusion! true epitome

Of what the mighty city is herself,

To thousands upon thousands of her sons,

Living amid the same perpetual whirl

Of trivial objects, melted and reduced

To one identity…’

The lives of the painter and the poet straddled the Georgian and Victorian periods: Constable, more optimistically Georgian, Wordsworth reacting in Romantic horror to the march of Victorian mass-production. Their remarks illustrate intensely engaged relationships with their surroundings. Look hard enough, says Constable, and you’ll always find beauty. Look hard enough, according to Wordsworth, and you may also encounter inhuman ugliness.

Are we losing our ability to feel strongly about ideas concerning beauty and ugliness?

Are we losing our ability to feel strongly about ideas concerning beauty and ugliness? If so, how might that affect the way we think, behave, and create? When was the last time you saw a building, paused to study it, and hated it for its conceptual and physical ugliness – really loathed it, with a primal fury that, in William Blake’s case, was only assuaged when the proto-Modernist Albion Mills, at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge, burned down in 1791?

Brutalism was architecture’s most obvious attempt at polemical ugliness

Brutalism was architecture’s most obvious attempt at polemical ugliness; PoMo became a celebration of grotesquely fatuous historicism; and today’s ubiquitous, smooth-skinned, colour-blocked mixed-use facades are enslaved to the unspoken diktat that architectural value can onlybe skin-deep in the 21st century’s infantilised, I’m-entitled-to-spend townscapes. Relatively few architects seem to think this profitable commodification of mass and surface is, in every sense, ugly.

It’s certainly the kind of dross that the design historian, Stephen Bayley, labels the Zen of Crap in his new and intriguing cabinet of curiosities, Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything. He doesn’t attempt to define beauty or ugliness, but offers useful provocations, such as Jonathan Swift’s aperçu: ‘Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style’. Thus, Bayley says, an ugly sentence (or building) is one that’s full of irrelevant allusions and vulgarising adaptations. But what if proper windows and proper walls, for example, are in their proper places?

McConnel’s Mill and Chipperfield’s City of Justice: Is one of these designs proper, and the other conceptually ugly?

They certainly were in the case of McConnel’s Mill in the Ancoats manufacturing quarter of Manchester in 1820. So, too, are they in David Chipperfield’s buildings at Barcelona’s City of Justice, which covers almost the same ground area as Ancoats. These two architectures, separated by nearly two centuries, share some fundamental similarities. Is one of these designs proper, and the other conceptually ugly?

David Chipperfield's City of Justice, Barcelona

David Chipperfield’s City of Justice, Barcelona

In Florence, the upper facade of Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella represents a kind of perfection: proportion and shape expressed in a tightly ordered graphic in which nothing is left to the imagination. There is something overwhelming about this hyper-distinct tableau that suggests both beauty and ugly bombast.

The facade’s four large circular features are central to this effect. We find the same radiused visual dictatorship in the exposed, perfectly circular breast of the Madonna in Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, in the Melun Diptych, painted about 30 years after Alberti completed Santa Maria Novella. The arid control of Fouquet’s vision is repellent: the nominally exquisite circumscription of the breast is profoundly, and disturbingly, ugly.

Kitsch… is undisturbing – a welcome, counter-factual antidote to the formal accuracies of Fordist Modernism

Whereas kitsch, according to Bayley’s chapter, Tasteless Mass Rubbish, is undisturbing – a welcome, counter-factual antidote to the formal accuracies of Fordist Modernism. He mentions Walter Benjamin’s term, Traumkitsch, which conflates dreaming and consumerism, and emphasises it with a chapter headed ‘The Freedom To Make Everything Look Like Shit’. That line ought to hover on the edge of architects’ consciences like Edgar Allan Poe’s ominous raven.

Is there is a particular kind of architectural ‘ugliness’ that can jolt us out of the Traumkitsch that shadows our lives? A proper ugliness, perhaps, producing a compellingly stark physical statement that is an absolute questioning of form, materials and space: St Bride’s Church, East Kilbride, perhaps, designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein?

Bayley is right to say that definitions of ugly design ‘depend not on the surface of things, but on their philosophical substance’. But what if fatuous surfaces are regarded as profound philosophy?

He quotes Brian Eno, who says that ‘the big challenge for artists today is to produce work sufficiently ugly that it cannot be appropriated for advertising’. Another of Walter Benjamin’s remarks might not have gone amiss: ‘The construction of life is at present in the power of facts far more than of convictions, and of such facts as have scarcely ever become the basis of convictions.’

Bayley, raven-like, speaks of a potential cacotopia, a world where everything is bad

Bayley, raven-like, speaks of a potential cacotopia, a world where everything is bad. But how would people recognise badness if the seduction of place had already, very gradually, succumbed to the reduction of place?

This situation begins with marketing strategies and proceeds to designers’ screens, where ‘uncanny valleys’ of virtual form take shape. To CGI techies that intriguing phrase denotes unearthly, super-precise aesthetic effects, the same kind that produced Fouquet’s bone-white virgin surrounded by blood-red angels and which throngs our struggling town centres with ‘exciting’ and ‘transformative’ barcode and Liquorice Allsorts facades.

If it takes so-called ugly architecture to remind us of the more humane ethical and psychological possibilities of design and place – rather than Wordsworth’s ‘trivial objects, melted and reduced to one identity’ – let’s have more of it.

Jay Merrick is the architecture critic of The Independent

Stephen Bayley, Ugly: the Aesthetics of Everything, Goodman Fiell, £25

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