Apartments in Lincoln Plaza, the latest winner of Building Design's Carbuncle Cup ©SIMON DAWSON/BLOOMBERG

The ugliest buildings in Britain

Tastes change. But poor quality never comes into style
October 12, 2016
Read more: London—time for Plan B

For the last 10 years, the architecture paper Building Design has awarded their Carbuncle Cup to “the ugliest building completed in the United Kingdom” in the last 12 months. The latest winner, announced in September, is Lincoln Plaza, a cluster of high-rise towers in Canary Wharf, designed by BUJ Architects for Galliard Homes. It garnered an unusual amount of press attention for an architecture story, as the Carbuncle Cup always does; as many column inches, usually, as the “best building” award, the Stirling Prize.

Normally a faintly bathetic statement is issued by the client (never the shamefaced architect). This time, a Galliard spokesperson mumbled: “these awards are really subjective matters of taste,” and given that “the scheme sold out” it is evidently “liked by the purchasers.” Those buyers might have had an eye on the increase in reputation of architecture previously considered carbuncular. We’re now living through one of those revisionist moments that happens every 25 or so years. Georgian architecture was loathed by the Victorians who were loathed in turn by the Modernists (who loved the Georgians) who were hated by the post-modernists who are in turn hated by the modernist revivalists.

The cycle moves on endlessly, and the consequence today is that a huge amount of the architecture despised by most people born between the 1940s and the 1970s—post-war modernism, and especially its most aggressive variant, Brutalism—is now fashionable. The likes of Sheffield’s Park Hill, London’s Trellick Tower and the National Theatre appear on plates and tea-towels, just as Victorian architecture did in the 1970s and 80s.

The phrase “Carbuncle” was coined for this architecture, when a 1984 competition for an extension to William Wilkins’s fussy National Gallery was won by Ahrends Burton and Koralek, with an asymmetrical Brutalist design. It was attacked in a speech by Prince Charles as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” After much behind-the-scenes lobbying, it was replaced with a post-modernist design by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, with “contextual” Corinthian columns where it faced Trafalgar Square, Egyptian columns round the corner, and stark brick for the back ends where nobody was looking—a striking image of the post-modernist liking for ironic historical pick’n’mix. For Charles the irony wasn’t the point so much as the decorum—the fact the new building “looked” to the casual eye a lot like the old one.

Now that the buildings of Ahrendts Burton and Koralek—like the Berkeley Library in Dublin, or Chichester Theological College—are among the Brutalist monuments adored by young enthusiasts, has the idea of “carbuncles” become meaningless? After all, one of the earliest examples of Brutalist revisionism was a short 2004 Channel Four film by Tom Dyckhoff entitled I Love Carbuncles. Lovers of brutalism tend to abhor post-modernism, but for designers in the architecture schools, a semi-ironic love of “po-mo” is a fine way to obtain a rep for naughtiness and daring. Will people come to love the 10 winners since 2006 of the Carbuncle Cup?

In the case of Lincoln Plaza, it’s fair to say that crimes against fashion and taste are the reasons why it won. These towers of “luxury flats” are clad in the sort of elaborately patterned metal and trespa sheets that were enormously popular in residential buildings in London, Birmingham and Manchester between the late 1990s and approximately 2011. Many of the same speculative flats are being built now, but clad instead in austere grids of brick, which nod respectfully to the Georgian tradition and the more well-mannered modern architecture of the Netherlands. Lincoln Plaza is simply unfashionable rather than actively awful, though it is hard to imagine the architectural hipsters of 2040 showing much interest. This hasn’t been the case with most earlier winners of the prize, where it has been the damage to townscape, rather than to architectural sensibilities, that has been the reason for the award.

In 2006 the inaugural prize was taken by the Drake Circus Shopping Centre in Plymouth, which frames a bombed-out church with wafers of orange plastic. In 2009 the inept Liverpool Pier Head Terminal won for the chutzpah of being placed opposite one of Europe’s greatest urban set pieces. In 2013 the winner was the shocking 465 Caledonian Road in London, prefabricated student flats shoved with breathtaking clumsiness behind the propped-up, preserved facade of a Victorian warehouse. The Carbuncle Cup has usually been awarded to schemes like these which do active violence to important, cared-for serious places with architecture that is cheap, tossed-off and dictated by the demands of what the British government euphemistically calls “value engineering.”

This is a real and intractable problem in British architecture and British cities: a carelessness, negligence and cheapness that debases the urban landscape everywhere from Plymouth to Leith.

These “carbuncles” are of a fundamentally different kind to those of Brutalism, which were based on juxtaposing historic buildings with strongly contrasting modern ones, conceived with some conviction, however apparently misplaced. The important argument is not about style wars fought out with silly, heated language, but of something much deeper—a negligence of quality and care in the built environment that is endemic in contemporary Britain, whether the cladding is in brick or in trespa.