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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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