How can we learn to stop worrying and love bad architecture?

The "Walkie Talkie", London's most hated building. Image: Getty.

Shocking new buildings often threaten to invade our cities. Sometimes, they simply land like alien spaceships, giving us very little warning.

Foreign in form, colour and texture, these statement structures seem far removed from the reality of our daily lives. We feel they do not belong to our present; we know they are not related to our past. We moan and complain, and we suffer the sight of them. But we struggle to pin down exactly what makes them seem so “ugly” to us.

Indeed, the UK goes so far as to have an annual award for Britain’s worst building, called the Carbuncle Cup. The 2015 recipient – the Walkie Talkie building in London – was unanimously voted to be “the ugliest and most hated building in Britain”. The judges described it as “a gratuitous glass gargoyle graffitied on the skyline”.

Strong words. So where do these sentiments come from?

In some ways, it’s down to human nature. We understand and perceive the world through the multiple stimuli we receive through our senses. When our environment changes naturally, at a slow pace, we have time to find ways of handling the new sensations and emotions that these changes trigger. For example, when the seasons change, we see changes in colour and vegetation, and our bodies adjust to cope with different levels of light and temperature.

But if environmental changes are too drastic or too rapid, or we’re exposed to a higher level of stimuli than what we can naturally cope with, then we can suffer from shock. Sudden changes can alter our heart beat, raise our blood pressure and increase our adrenaline levels, which ultimately takes its toll on our health and well-being. Research shows that when we’re forced to leave the environments we know and love – whether through displacement or dispossession – the upheaval can trigger what’s known as “root shock”.

Strong emotions

Bad omen. Image: rejectreality/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Given the strong emotional attachment we have to our neighbourhoods, it’s not surprising that we feel unsettled when unfamiliar buildings spring up on our skylines and disrupt the sights we’re used to seeing every day. What’s more, when communities are bound by particularly strong social ties, this can reduce our willingness to embrace new ideas and innovations, leading us to resist change.


But if human nature explains why we resist new and ambitious architecture, it can also account for how we grow to accept it. As social beings, our identities as individuals and as groups are defined by shared moral standards and social norms. To agree on and communicate these norms, we attribute social meaning to every component in our lives. We construct symbols, ideas, tastes, and preferences – what theorists have labelled “cultural capital”.

As a society changes, so does its cultural capital. Gradually the negative ideas we associate with shocking buildings can morph into something more positive. Once the “shock” factor has dissipated, these buildings have a chance to settle into the urban fabric. As our lives go on around them, they become part of the community’s collective memory. Charged with new symbolic values, the building we once hated might begin to reflect our dreams and aspirations. As we gradually become accustomed to it, we start to accept it and, eventually, even love it.

Tale as old as time

There are plenty of historic examples of this gradual shift from rejection to acceptance; from love to hate. The best-known case is perhaps the Eiffel Tower. When the plans were revealed back in 1887, local residents and artists signed a petition to protest against the “useless” and “monstrous” structure, labelling it the “dishonour” of Paris.

But over the years, the tower became a symbol of love and romance, mystery and adventure. Today the building is one of the most renowned monuments in the world, packed with identity and meaning.

Once hated; now a symbol of love. Image: Aucunale TNT/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

The same thing happened with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum in New York. In 1946, building works were delayed by a decade when local residents and artists instigated a furious fight to prevent its construction. Initially, the design received an assortment of derogatory nicknames: “toilet bowl”, “potty”, “snail shell”, “marshmallow”, “corkscrew”, and – perhaps less searingly – “upside down washing machine”. Nevertheless, soon after completion, the museum became popular worldwide, partly due to its controversial appearance: a white purist form in a forest of glazed skyscrapers; a statement against the norm.

Of course, one can still question whether these buildings are worth the toll that they take on those with a strong emotional attachment to the locality. Some would say that it’s immoral for designers and developers to spend fortunes making personal statements at the expense of societal well-being. But others will argue that these bold gestures are the product of genius, and the driver of human progress.


Ultimately, architectural design is a matter of taste. It gives societies a licence to build up and tear down, to accept and reject, to love and to hate. Shocking buildings push our boundaries, they bring our identities and place emotions to the surface. They challenge our understanding of ourselves and our society, forcing us to evolve. They acclimatise our senses to the latest technological advances.

They make us deal with the notion of a new reality. They make us confront our future.

Laura Alvarez is a lecturer in architectural technology at Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Uniquely, Sheffield's dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall”

Beech Hill, Broomhill, Sheffield. Image: 02Vallencel/Wikimedia Commons.

When media types talk about Sheffield as a hyper-creative, culturally left-field ‘Bristol of the North’ (or a Leipzig of the West), they’re talking about Sheffield A and not Sheffield B.

Sheffield A is a healthy, wealthy and leafy mix of greens, golf courses and gastropubs stretching from Fulwood and Ranmoor in the west to Nether Edge, Meersbrook and Dore in the south. This is the city that made international headlines in recent months with a campaign to protect its street trees from an incompetent and complacent council.

Sheffield B is an adjacent but almost entirely unconnected city running down the Don from Upperthorpe to Hillsborough, up to Ecclesfield in the north and stretching to Tinsley, Attercliffe, Darnall and Gleadless Valley in the east. It is a place economically characterised by poverty, lack of opportunity, low-skilled work, poor quality housing stock and even poorer public transport.

Uniquely for a British city, where pockets of deprivation are usually nestled uncomfortably between well-to-do suburbs, Sheffield’s dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall. How did this happen?

The consensus opinion seems to be that the poorer side of the city is centred around the steel mills, factories and associated workers’ housing that doubled Sheffield’s population many times over from the Industrial Revolution right up until the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s.

The wealthier half, much of it dating from the turn-of-the-century, represents the flight of the managers and mill owners from the noise and smog of Blake’s “dark satanic mills”. The rich ensconced themselves in an enclave high above their employees, literally: Sheffield A is significantly hilly, particularly the parts that border the Peak District to the west. The spacious Victorian houses often feature spectacular views across the seven hills.

(Of course, this invisible border isn’t fixed forever. The formerly industrial area of Kelham Island has been transformed by the forces of gentrification, its proximity to the centre ensuring that its redbrick warehouses have been repurposed as gin bars, food courts and pricey flats for single professionals.)

Despite the best efforts of the pitiful privatised bus service, it is possible to cross from one city to the other. In 2013, the ‘Fairness On The 83’ project found that average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women along a bus route that runs from Ecclesfield in the north to Ecclesall in the south, right across the divide. In the same year, the Sheffield Fairness Commission reported that “a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born into”. Remember, this is in one of the richest countries in the world.

We know from the work of Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level that unequal societies perform worse on almost every social metric. They’re unhealthier, unhappier and less educated, with higher rates of mental illness, property crime, obesity, infant mortality and teenage pregnancy. Their work shows that it’s not just poorer people who suffer: even the well-off do worse in societies with higher rates of economic inequality.


Sheffield has recently been labelled the ‘low pay capital’ of the UK, but you wouldn’t know that from poking around the leafy suburb of Hallam – Nick Clegg’s former constituency – which is one of the wealthiest in the entire country. The result of this division is like a real life version of China Miéville’s The City & the City. The richer half of the city don’t even see their poorer fellow citizens, as they would in London or Manchester, where disadvantaged areas like Tower Hamlets and Southwark rub shoulders with the moneyed comfort of Islington and Greenwich.

t may be cynical, but when I hear people talking up Sheffield as “the largest village in England” I sometimes wonder if what they really like about the city is that they can effectively reside in a gated community, living day-to-day without ever entering Sheffield B. Even the city centre is segregated to some degree, with the boutiques and bookshops of Division Street and the Peace Gardens forming a marked contrast to Waingate and The Wicker, two shopping streets which appear to been consigned to a barely managed decline.

The lack of interaction between these parallel cities goes some way to explaining the shock that reverberated around Sheffield A when the city as a whole voted to leave the European Union, 51 per cent leave to 49 per cent remain. For the people on the right side of the line, it hadn’t even crossed their minds that over half of their fellow citizens had been left behind. It’s a tale of two cities.