Carbuncle Cup - the annual circus of architectural luddism

Another year, another Carbuncle Cup shortlist, and another set of evidence that this award has pretty much lost all credibility as a genuine spotlight on the "worst building", and is quite obviously now just an exercise in bashing contemporary styles.

It's like a "worst music" award that mysteriously always goes to a hiphop track: there comes a point when you have to realise the judges simply don't like hiphop because in their day "real music" had guitars and singing, which takes "actual talent" while hiphop is merely "a bunch of thugs" who are "only talking, usually about guns and violence, which anyone could do". (I can't, or at least won't, point to a live example of that analogy, but trust me, poke around around on music forums or read the comments under youtube music videos -- you'll soon find examples of that attitude.) Well fine, they're entitled to their taste, however throwback and vaguely racist it may be, but dressing it up as a considered, educated judgement / analysis based on universalist, objective, principles is arrogant as hell.

So it is in the field of architecture, where people with entrenched conservative tastes dress up their habitualised disparagement of an entire "genre" by singling out -- seemingly at random -- not-especially-terrible buildings for ritualised sneering, all the while pretending this represents a meaningful judgment of architectural quality.

How come these awards never criticise utter crap like this:

Modern British housebuilding; or, the complete absence of aesthetic and architectural quality

-- generic no-effort no-style no-expense-spent boxes which qualify as "architecture" only in the same sense this blog post qualifies as "literature". That is, sure, it's composed of words, some of them used in a not strictly literal fashion, it conveys some sort of message, so it sort of technically qualifies - but it clearly has no creative/artistic merit behind it whatsoever. Likewise these generic boxes are buildings, and theoretically someone must have designed them, which makes them technically architecture, but you have to struggle to see it as deserving of the name. A computer algorithm could spit out developments like this in a few years; in fact looking at what google can do I'm pretty sure it could do it already. Maybe it already is.

Now, in case the developers of the houses above are feeling litiginous, I'd like to stress that most of this piece isn't talking about those buildings at all. I mean, some of the purely aesthetic criticism clearly is, but my other comments about build quality and low-effort profiteering. Of course not. Those houses and that developer are unimpeachable, obviously. But speaking in legally carefully vague and general terms, this sort of housebuilding deserves a wodge of criticism. But first, let's go back to the Carbuncle Cup shortlist and take a look at the Lincoln Plaza.

Funnily enough, I started writing this article when it was only shortlisted, and decided to pick on this one, rather than the efforts in Sheffield or Stoke-on-Trent, because I haven't been to those cities for a long time / ever. It is mere coincidence, rather conveniently for me, that it proceeded to "win".

Lincoln Plaza

To save you image-searching, or flipping back to the article linked above, here's a picture of it. This is by flickr user chistery, because I don't have any photos of it myself. Partly this is because at the time of writing I'm not in London so I can't go and take one for the purpose of this article; partly it's because I don't have one already, which is because I don't really like it much. Something which you might bear in mind as the piece goes on. Anyway. Here it is:

Lincoln Plaza E14

And this glassy-steely-skyscrapery thing sits in the context of the post-Canary Wharf docklands, i.e., somewhere full of glass and steel skyscrapers:

Canary Wharf skyline (wider)

So, question: how is this building a bigger detriment to its context than those boxes are an insult to their context, which is a beautiful old village filled with individual, unique, historic vernacular buildings:

South Petherton wide angle - church

It isn't. In fact, it fits much better.

But only one of these gets bashed by this annual circus of architectural luddism, and guess what, it's the glass-and-steel one. Because it seems the judges are only interesting in slating contemporary buildings that don't suit their taste, they aren't interested in judging buildings according to any of the criteria one might use to meaningfully judge architecture. To illustrate this claim, let's have a look at what some of those criteria might be:

Appropriateness for context / choice and quality of materials / care and thought of detailing

As illustrated above, the Lincoln Plaza fits seamlessly into its surroundings. In fact, it's even in the "context" photo used above. You probably didn't even notice it, because it fits in so well -- and even now I've told you it's there and you've gone back to look for it, you're probably struggling to find it. (I'll give you a clue: it's on the right.)

So in general stylistic terms it fits. More specifically the quality of materials is pretty high, at least on a par with its surroundings; it doesn't "let down the neighbourhood" in that regard.

On the other hand our generic boxes above don't really fit in very well. I suppose from a very top-level perspective they do. They're house-shaped houses, with pitched roofs. But even the most casual observer, paying no real attention to architecture, would see in an instant that these new buildings stick out like a sore thumb compared to the existing housing stock:

Utterly generic   South Petherton

And on closer inspection we can pick apart why. The quality of materials is the obvious point, and absolutely does "let down the neighbourhood". The local buildings are built of stone, these are built of brick. The local stone is beautiful, deep, rich, warm, nuanced and golden. This is cheapo generic bright yellow or red brick. The local roofs are dark. These roofs are generic orange-red tiles. The local buildings are all finely detailed, with chamfered windows and all that sort of malarkey. These ones are stark, basic boxes. You can hardly even accuse them of lacking attention to detail, as they have no detailing to pay attention to.

Think I'm exaggerating? They don't really have no detailing, do they?

Utterly featureless

If you count those little plastic bathroom air vent things as architectural detailing, then perhaps I am. Otherwise, no, I'm really not.

Creativity and originality of design

The Lincoln Plaza's design may be brash, sure, I'd even freely admit it's divisive -- but at least it is a design. At least it's not entirely generic, each box a complete copy-paste of the same thing built next to it, in turn a copy-paste of the same thing built in the next village, in the next county, in the last decade... in any county, in any time of the last 50 years. Visually, it isn't lowest common denominator, and likewise, the effort and expense gone into it isn't the absolute bare minimum, a product of architecture-by-spreadsheet, "value-engineering" everything.

Thinking I'm exaggerating? They're not really exact copy-paste duplication, are they?

Copy-paste architecture

Yes. Yes, they are.

Build quality

But perhaps you think "creativity" is overrated. "If you want art, go to a gallery," you might tell me. It's far more important, you might argue, for a building to be solid than it is to be pretty.

Well on this score, yet again, the finger of shame should surely be pointed at new build boxes. The typical product of the major british house builders has seen a "systematic decline in quality control", so that "most will have a significantly shorter lifespan due to poor quality materials..."

If you forgive the Partridge-ism, "those aren't my words", they're the words of a chartered surveyor who makes it clear in the linked blog they consider the best advice with these new boxes to be to steer well clear because they're so shoddy.

Now in fairness, I need to contrast against Lincoln Plaza, and I can't do that, because I have absolutely no idea of the build quality of that. However, if we are generous to the generic boxes as we could possibly be, and imagine it is equally shoddy (which seems unlikely to me, because you can't build 300ft tall buildings shoddily, but let's just pretend anyway for the sake of argument) - that makes this category a tie. This still leaves the grand total scores quite one-sided...


Perhaps most glaringly of all, they're certainly not interested in judging them by how well they serve an environmentally sustainable future where an ever-growing population has to be packed into this island's small area even as climate change worsens. How well, in other words, they serve the needs of the nation and world as a whole, rather than purely the needs of the residents and builders. Because if they were judged this way, it's a walkover. On the one hand: dense, public transport focused, buildings on brownfield land, probably featuring CHP etc. On the other hand, a sprawl of car-centric cul-de-sacs eating up the countryside.

But you're being unfair!

Think I'm being unfair? Perhaps the argument is forming in your brain -- of course the Lincoln Plaza has classier materials than these generic semis, it's a luxury development for rich people and the prices reflect that, and the design and build reflects the money in turn. It's unreasonable to expect mass-market housing to reflect local vernacular styles or materials. It's unreasonable to expect mass-market housing to have any individuality of design. It's entry-level in price, so it has to be this way to keep costs down! If they splashed out on actual architects with a molecule of creativity, or decent stone, then the houses would be unaffordable to the intended buyers!


And I can prove it by walking literally 200 yards down the road, to a slightly earlier phase of new builds.

Modern housing with stone(effect) materials

See? Those houses look like they're built out of the local sandstone. They're almost certainly not, because the local stone is in relatively short supply, so it's generally reserved for restoration/conservation projects of historic buildings. Building from real Ham stone would indeed be far too expensive. But they've found something which is a passable imitation, at least to casual observation.

Notice also that the houses shown above, and indeed these others shown below, are not copy-paste identical to each other.

Modern housing with 2-colour brick detailing

Notice that these have some degree of detailing, with red brick picking out edges and windows, a reflection of some local historic buildings.

Modern house with traditional/local-style fenestration

Look carefully at the windows of the new-build house above. Nice, huh? See how they reflect the historic, local-style windows seen on the right here:

South Petherton

So we can clearly see that it is possible to build modern mass-market housing while imitating classic local materials, styles and features. The developers of the bleak brick boxes simply haven't bothered.

Or perhaps you think I'm being unfairly biased in the other direction - I like modern / tall / shiny buildings, so I'm overly defensive about Lincoln Plaza.

Well, not really. I don't dislike modern / tall / shiny buildings in general, that's true, but I'm not an automatic fan of them either. I'm not a huge admirer of Lincoln Plaza personally, it's a bit chaotic for my taste. 20 Fenchurch Street won the Carbuncle Cup last year, and I think that's an absolutely appalling building. I've described the Baltimore Tower, just the other side of the dock to Lincoln Plaza, as resembling a sagging sack of potatoes. I've no problem denigrating this type of building when it deserves it. But to label something THE worst new building in the country is an extraordinary claim which, as the saying goes, requires extraordinary evidence, and I just don't buy it in this case.

Totting up

So to conclude, the average product of mass market British housebuilding is utterly devoid of architectural merit, indistuinguishably dull-as-ditchwater, makes no effort whatsoever to reflect local vernacular styles, adds no decoration or detailing whatsoever, can't be bothered to reflect local materials, is "cheap and nasty" in quality (not my words...) and environmentally irresponsible. But hey, they look sort of "traditional", in that they roughly resemble a child's drawing of a house, which makes them Good Architecture.

Meanwhile, some buildings which display individuality, a splash of colour, utilise modern materials, construction techniques and urban planning principles for improved environmental efficiency, but have the sheer temerity to look like they might have been designed in the (gasp) twentieth or even twenty-first century? They're clearly Bad Architecture, and belong on a list of Bad Buildings.

How pathetic is that?

It's impossible not to come to the conclusion, given the shortlists, and the name, that this award is dished out by an army of little tinpot Prince Charleses, no doubt ensconced in their mock-tudor semis. A conclusion which is, of course, not fair and not true: the truth is worse than that.

That's not who these people are, that's who these people are pandering to. The judges are actually mostly architecture and construction professionals - they know everything I've said here already, without some amateur keyboard-warrior critic like me pointing it out. But the aim of the Cup game is churnalism. Getting their press release reprinted by the lazy excuse for journalists that remains in our fourth estate, selling papers and magazines and driving click-throughs with clickbait.

And most Brits live in houses like the ones I'm criticising; very few live in buildings like the Lincoln Plaza. An Englishman's home is his castle, and you don't make yourself popular by pointing out that his castle is a cheap and nasty piece of crap. You do make yourself popular by slating those rich London bankers (by architectural proxy), who must be the easiest target for outrage, in our outrage-driven media world. And so it is that a rolling architectural disaster that affects pretty much everyone nationwide gets no coverage from this award at all, while a moderately jarring building that affects a handful of people in the docklands gets singled out for a carpeting.

If the organisers / judges read this (pretty unlikely, as nobody reads my website, but hypothetically...) they may be inclined to tweet an indignant rebuttal. (Not that you could meaningfully rebut this in 140 characters, but apparently that's the standard of public discourse these days.) I've got a better idea. If you want to prove me wrong, stick one of these awful houses on your shortlist in 2017. Until then I'll remain convinced that, however garish Lincoln Plaza may be, it is far from the worst new building in the UK. In fact, with 1000s of these demonstrably shitty little boxes being dumped all over our countryside every year, it's not even amongst the worst ten, hundred or thousand worst buildings.

And when your award is blatantly wrong by three orders of magnitude, it simply can't be taken seriously.