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Editorial: Does it matter what it looks like?

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Is a bad building the same thing as an ugly building, or is a facade only skin-deep?

‘There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.’ The artist John Constable was happy to give the benefit of the doubt on the subject of beauty, unlike the familiar refrain that ‘modern’ architecture has little aesthetic value compared with past architectural styles, and that too many contemporary buildings have coarsened if not destroyed historic (or simply familiar) environments across the globe. Architects themselves would be the first to agree that there are too many bad new buildings being designed. But is a bad building the same thing as an ugly building? 

This raises an issue discussed by the teacher and critic Mark Cousins at the Architectural Association in a lecture series on ugliness. He noted, among many other things, that the Keatsian proposition, truth is beauty and vice versa, is dangerous medicine. If accepted it implies that ugliness is evil: a short step to witch-burnings and other more collectivist horrors. The accusation that a building is ugly often seems like the projection of fears or prejudices onto a physical object which has little to do with architecture, but rather a lot to do with the condition of the complainant.

The question of what a building ‘looks like’, discussed in various ways in this issue of AR, raises a series of other questions which remind us of the complexity inherent in discussion of facades, elevations or curtain walls, and the way in which language itself begins to influence the discussion. At what point does the facade (implication: skin-deep) become an elevation (implication: structural)? What is a glass wall? Is transparency desirable, or does it always carry the subtext ‘I can see right through you’? Moreover, what exactly do we see when we look at a building or a skyline?

This latter question is dependent on a series of factors which may or may not be in the control of the viewer. Gazing at the Manhattan skyline in spring, en route from the airport, especially at night, can scarcely be regarded as the same experience as seeing the individual buildings close up on a cold wet day in November. What the skyline is telling us, if anything, is not a message that can be conveyed at near-scale, where individual characteristics become more important, and where one is supposed to be able to understand the nature of the building without having it spelled out in neon. 

Unlike the simple icons of cathedrals and town halls, contemporary architecture is more uncertain in the expression of identity. Although certain buildings, by virtue of their form and massing, are clear enough (for example, residential needle towers are not offices), there is often greater ambiguity about whether a building is for commercial or residential use. The incorporation of landscape or external climate modifiers into facades makes identity fuzzier, sometimes literally. The increasing interest in retrofit projects, partly for environmental reasons, suggests that ambiguity will continue for a long time to come. 

Indeed there is an emerging class of building, sometimes described as ‘universal space’, which assumes retrofit in advance, and tries to make it as easy as possible to flip from one use to another. A commercial building called the White Collar Factory, close to the AR offices in Shoreditch, east London, has 4m floor-to-floor dimensions. It anticipates all sorts of future possible uses while, in its first life, operating as an office building with user-friendly workspace amenities and services incorporated. Has it been designed to be ‘beautiful’ or to provide an urban narrative? I would say not, but it has certainly been designed well. There is nothing ugly about good design.

Lead image: The ‘White Collar Factory’ by AHMM, an unusually sophisticated speculative development at Old Street, east London, avoids monotonous unvariegated facades on its office tower in both vertical and horizontal planes. There is a clear base, middle and top; fenestration percentages range from 30 on the south facade to 70 on the north, but a general pattern of solid, perforate and clear panels is maintained. Opening windows are ubiquitous; there is no air conditioning. Photography by Timothy Soar