Building self-esteem, lowering horizons

The organiser of the Carbuncle Awards for Scotland's worst building thinks critics are being too soft on architects.

Penny Lewis

Topics Politics

Why do we find it so difficult to judge architecture today?

For the past 150 years, judgements about architecture were based on an outline provided by the ancient Roman Vitruvius. It was broadly accepted that good architecture should satisfy three criteria: firmness, commodity and delight.

‘Firmness’ referred to the building’s capacity to stand up, ‘commodity’ to its usefulness, and ‘delight’ to its beauty.

In the twentieth century, buildings were also assessed in relation to the function and integrity of materials. With the rise of postmodernism, buildings were assessed by their symbolism, and by how far they were removed from the values of modernism.

But in the twenty-first century, there is no consensus on how to evaluate the strength of a piece of architecture. If I criticise buildings, people often tell me that it’s all a question of taste.

If there is any basis on which we do make judgments about architecture, it tends to be by the contemporary moral standard: ‘Is it environmentally and socially sustainable?’ This judgement is divorced from the artistic discipline of architecture, from the labours of architects, their peers and their predecessors – meaning it isn’t a particularly helpful basis on which to make artistic judgements.

Much of architectural criticism has become flaccid and sycophantic. On the rare occasions when reviews are harsh, it is assumed that the author must have an axe to grind. When journalists criticise buildings, it tends to be on the basis of the budget or the failure to use local materials, rather than on the design.

The regeneration game has also made criticism taboo. Publicly funded projects that are predicated on inflated visitor numbers tend to be protected from criticism, as a bad press could apparently destroy their commercial viability.

Designers may get plenty of exposure in the lifestyle sections of magazines, but their work is very rarely judged properly. It is ironic that public debate about architectural quality should hit such a low point now – just when the UK government is ploughing money into centres, policy initiatives and prizes to promote the public appreciation of architecture.

I had firsthand experience of the low level of architectural criticism when I was asked to run a prize, launched by publishers Gordon Young, called the Carbuncle Awards (1). The aim was to pinpoint some of Scotland’s more disappointing projects, as an antidote to the plethora of architectural prizes. The Carbuncles’ ‘Plook on a Plinth’ trophy is given each year to Scotland’s most disappointing building and most dismal town. The presentation of the award is humorous, but the content is serious – the aim being to raise questions about the quality of new developments. This year the ‘Plook on the Plinth’ award provoked a major debate when it was awarded to Cumbernauld, the 1960s new town.

Last year, within days of announcing the first shortlist I had Brian Wilson, member of parliament for Cunninghame North, calling from Westminster to accuse me of being a sneering snob who had failed to understand that architecture was about more than aesthetics. He said the Carbuncles were an insult to Ardrossan (a shortlisted town in his constituency), which would undermine the residents’ self-esteem. The assumption seemed to be that our judgement about the town’s buildings reflected how we felt about the town’s people.

Other critics accused the Carbuncle Awards’ organisers of being old-fashioned elitists, so wrapped up in judging the intrinsic value of architecture that we had failed to understand how attached people were to their local environment.

It began to dawn on me that environmentally and socially sustainability is now the only basis upon which a building can be judged. The criteria run something like this: if people used a building and enjoyed it, the building is okay; if people were in some way involved in the process of producing it, the building is good; if the building gave people a sense of pride and self-esteem, then it was excellent.

But socially sustainable buildings are far from being the product of genuine public ‘participation’. The agenda is still set by professionals employed by government or local authorities – and the public are merely wheeled on like a stage army to give legitimacy to a project.

Of course, good architecture is always suited to its purpose – whether it be a bar, a betting shop or a church. But what is being evaluated today is not whether buildings respond well to the brief. Instead, the creative process is being subsumed beneath a moral framework.

These new moral criteria are damaging to the artistic discipline of architecture. We are in danger of creating a new generation of architects who are complacent. Some of society’s most talented young designers are being educated to believe that the measure of good work is that the timber came from a local forest, and that a handful of locals were dragooned into a consultation process. They rarely raise questions about what constitutes a genuine public interest – as opposed to a bogus idea of what the public wants, dreamt up by local officials or politicians.

And as long as this happens, there will be more towns like Ardrossan and Cumbernauld – and more people who end up living around dismal architecture. That’s why we all need the Carbuncles.

Penny Lewis is deputy editor of the Scottish architecture magazine Prospect, and organiser of the Carbuncle Awards.

Read on:

New Labour’s folly, by Penny Lewis

Man of steel, by Vicky Richardson

(1) See the website for the Carbuncle Awards

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Topics Politics


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