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.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.