Sunday, August 7, 2016

Worst Buildings of the Last 125 Years

For its upcoming special 125th anniversary issue in September, Architectural Record convened an independent panel to select the best 125 buildings of the last 125 years.(1)  But for a list of BAD buildings, the magazine turned to its readers to each identify up to five of the worst buildings constructed since 1891. August 10 is the deadline, so I submitted my picks before it was too late.

As Thumper says in Disney’s animated classic Bambi, “If you can’t something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” My wife, too, thought speaking ill of the work of other architects is simply being unkind. “Why tempt karma,” she said suggesting that what goes around comes around. I know how hurtful it would be if someone thought a project I was involved with is deserving of being labeled as the “ugliest” or “worst design ever.” I don’t like to upset anybody. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist. May karma be kind to me.

The world is full of ugly buildings, but the majority of these comprise what Kriston Capps, staff writer for CityLab, referred to as “the dark matter of our built universe, the stuff we hardly detect that surrounds us in every direction.” In a 2014 article for, Capps asked rhetorically “Why focus your hate on stellar architecture, the buildings designed for people to see, when the universe is filled with so much work that’s built not to be noticed?” The answer, of course, is because so much of the architecture we do shine a light on is of dubious merit despite (and perhaps because of) the aesthetic pretensions behind their conception. In my mind, they’re fair game. Accordingly, the choices on my “worst” list are all prominent, highly visible buildings rather than chunks of the banal and easily overlooked “dark matter.”

Photographs alone cannot fully and accurately represent the three-dimensional reality of any building or place, so I confined my worst buildings list to only those I’ve actually visited in person. The fact I’m not especially well-traveled profoundly circumscribed my choices.(2) Even so, my picks are like selections from a “greatest hits” compilation, most already appearing on other published lists of bad architecture. I guess this means ugly is universally recognized. Not all of these lists are exclusively the product of architects like myself, so my profession’s sometimes inscrutable criteria for what constitutes good design isn’t necessarily swaying them.

Here’s the list of the five buildings I consider worthy of the “worst” tag. Each of my selections is accompanied by a quote from someone who, like me, decided it to be deserving of public derision and scorn:

1. Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle – Architect: Frank Gehry


Experience Music Project Museum (photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

“It's hard to understand what Gehry was trying to do with this building. It boggles the mind. When it comes to ugly architecture, Gehry is one of the usual suspects. He's been making ugly, stupid buildings for a long time and he's still doing it. But this was the worst. This is where he jumped the shark.” (Dario Zapata)

My take: The EMP is just bad, bad, bad.

2. Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Building, London – Architect: Terry Farrell

The SIS Building (photo by Tagishsimon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

“It’d be easy for James Bond to hide on that roof: he’d have his pick of hulking concrete slabs, characterless green glass, and jagged rotundas behind which to suavely crouch. The Ugly Truth: While designing the intelligence headquarters, which opened in 1995, British architect Terry Farrell had to deal with extensive government requests, like removing windows and adding moats (yes, really). So the many eyesores supposedly exist for safety reasons, with cameras lurking behind every nook and cranny.” (Bunny Wong)

My take: What’s a Mesopotamian ziggurat doing in the middle of London?

3.  Boston City Hall, Boston – Architect: Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles

Boston City Hall (photo by Daniel Schwen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
City Hall is so ugly that its insane upside-down wedding-cake columns and windswept plaza distract from the building’s true offense. Its great crime isn’t being ugly; it’s being anti-urban. The building and its plaza keep a crowded city at arm’s length.” (Paul McMorrow)

My take: The biggest issue I have with Boston City Hall has less to do with its aesthetic than it does with the fact its construction necessitated destruction of an established neighborhood with a strong sense of community.

4. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. – Architect: Gordon Bunshaft

The Hirshhorn Museum (photo by Postdlf licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

"[The building] is known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign... It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine 'brutalism' a positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden." (Ada Louise Huxtable)

My take: The form of the Hirshhorn blindly ignores its setting on the National Mall, relying upon its sculpture garden to mediate the relationship between the building and the vast public open space on its doorstep.

5. Portland Building, Portland – Architect: Michael Graves 

The Portland Building (photo by Steve Morgan, via Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) 
"It's not architecture, it's packaging. I said at the time that there were only two good things about it: 'It will put Portland on the map, architecturally, and it will never be repeated.” (Pietro Belluschi)
*    *    *    *    *    *
Let’s see how many of my choices end up on Architectural Records worst buildings list. I’m setting the over-under at 4.
Eugene has more than its share of, in the inimitable words of Otto Poticha, FAIA, “butt-ugly” buildings. Thankfully, the majority of these are not likely to stand the test of time and eventually will be replaced with newer and better designs. I have a great deal of faith in my colleagues in the Eugene architecture community and am confident a day will come when “Eugene” and “butt-ugly” will never again appear in the same sentence together.
(1)  2016 is Architectural Record’s 125th year in publication.
(2)  I grew up in British Columbia, Canada. The only other Canadian province I’ve been to is Alberta. I now live in Oregon, and once lived in California. I have additionally visited Washington, DC and the following states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Abroad, I’ve been to Mexico, England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

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