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What counts as ‘bad’ architecture? The problem with the Carbuncle Cup

From the Carbuncle Cup to the Dead Prize and Zaha in Qatar, architectural journalists resort to moral outrage to shore-up dwindling readerships

Maybe it’s ironic that there are not many written rules in journalism, but several unwritten ones. One such convention is that when you become the story, you become a liability. This maxim did for TV presenter Angus Deayton after the News of the World’s revealed evidence of sexual shenanigans that forced him to quit a current affairs comedy programme; it did for journalist Andrew Gilligan after he made unfounded claims about the UK government and became a lead witness in his own story. This particular axiom relies on the generally accepted (however idealistic) notion of the media as a reliable source of content; and that once the media is compromised, it loses credibility. If the reporter is at the centre of the story, then certain standards of objectivity and integrity fly out of the window.

Self-referential campaigns like the Carbuncle Cup – campaigns that don’t actually campaign for anything – are actually less about the object of study and more about the disseminating organ itself. It’s merely self-promotion masquerading as a news story. So headlines in Building Design like ‘Media goes Carbuncle Cup crazy’, is the kind of story that eats itself. When the architectural media becomes the story – albeit because of the slowdown in the construction industry – then it loses all proportion. In many instances, we fail to recognise that these are games played by the media, for the media. After all, should we really hold the front page for a story about how lots of British architecture isn’t very good?

“Maybe next year we could get Leon Krier to judge the ‘Why Concrete is Shite’ prize or Patrik Schumacher could cast his vote on the ‘Orthogonal Cup’”

Should we really give credence to a bad architecture prize judged by Owen Luder and Hank Dittmar, elder statesman of Prince Charles’s grace and favour? Maybe next year we could get Leon Krier to judge the ‘Why Concrete is Shite’ prize or Patrik Schumacher could cast his vote on the ‘Orthogonal Cup’. Surely, hilarity, headlines, subscriptions and click-throughs will ensue. That, after all, is the sole purpose of an incestuous media campaign these days.

But, more worryingly, in recent years architects and architectural journalists have become arbiters of, not taste, but behaviour. Cameron Sinclair’s Dead Prize, for example, is a self-regarding prank that seeks ‘not to judge beauty versus “ugly” but how detrimental has a design been to both society and the environment.’


St. Francis Dam which bust in 1928 killing 600 people and is nominated for the Dead Prize. Sinclair says the idea for the Dead Prize came from living in proximity to council flats as a child.

Such moral grandstanding takes chutzpah. The Dead Prize wants us to identify ‘designs that are helping shorten our existence on this planet’. But hey, ‘we don’t believe in being negative’. Some people might think that this judgmental campaign to name and shame people and projects, to point the finger and pillory, is positive and legitimate. It’s a standpoint that seems to imply that all architects and engineers destroy things to some extent and must learn the error of their ways. This grotesque view of humanity-as-inherently-harmful is fuelling social cynicism and the unquestioned authority of the heroic campaigner is fundamentally an anathema to democratic due process.

Undoubtedly, you could see the mere act of construction as a callous process of wilful energy use that exposes workers to risk, increases market-driven consumption and, of course, impacts on the planet. If so, and you are in the camp that believes that we primarily need restraint — the patrician hand of Sinclair is reaching out to you. If you don’t have an opinion, or if you think that architects should simply design buildings and leave politics to elected politicians, then you may need to atone.

“This grotesque view of humanity-as-inherently-harmful is fuelling social cynicism”

BD editor Thomas Lane says of Woolwich Tesco, the so-called winner of the 2014 Carbuncle Cup: ‘the building’s worst crime is that it diminishes the efforts of those who have worked hard to regenerate this run-down, deprived part of London’.  Maybe the architects didn’t realise that economic recovery and furthering gentrification was their responsibility. Under the cover of a playful campaign lurks the heavy hand of sanction.

The word ‘crime’ (‘injurious to public welfare or morals’) is quite an accusation. This is the language of the inquisition. Recently, Zaha Hadid was witch-hunted for saying ‘It’s not my duty as an architect’ to address the deaths of workers on World Cup building sites. She was judged and convicted for the audacity to have an opinion that ran counter to the chattering class morality of the day. As we become more and more indifferent to destroying character and careers, as we allow the creeping acceptance of public humiliation to filter into public life, so we become desensitized to the lack of due diligence, journalistic standards, objectivity and civility. Undoubtedly, Hadid or some other poor sap who has built something that aggravates the moralisers, will be a front runner for the Dead Prize’s condescending accolade.

Preston Bus Station

The Brutalist masterpiece Preston Bus Station which is nominated for the Dead Prize was recently saved from demolition in part thanks to campaigns backed by BD


Austin Williams is hosting a series of talks, including “What is Good Architecture?” at the Battle of Ideas on 18-19th October. See:

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