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Building beauty

The art of creation lies in the gift of perceiving the particular and generalizing it, thus creating the particular again. It is therefore a powerful transforming force

“I want to be an architect, so that I can design hideous buildings that people loath, that are out of step with popular culture, the environment and everything around them”. Said no-one, ever.

By and large, architects design buildings that they are happy with. Whether the finished product ends up exactly how the architect originally planned, is, of course not always guaranteed as cost, planning and client opinion can all play their part.

So there’s a part of me that feels a little bit sorry for Rafael Vinoly, the architect of the infamous WalkieTalkie building in London, winner of this year’s Carbuncle Cup, awarded by BMJ’s erstwhile sister publication Building Design. But it’s a small part. And it only feels a little bit sorry.

Personally, I think the Walkie Talkie works better as part of the London skyline than it does closer up. Viewing it from the train as you come into London Bridge, it just looks like a building that has been placed in the ground upside down so that it’s fatter on the top than it is at the bottom. Thus viewed, it’s not so bad.

The Walkie Talkie won the dubious honour of the Carbuncle Cup by a unanimous vote and received more nominations than any other building on the shortlist. That’s pretty good going when you consider the horrors of Woodward Hall, North Acton, the building that prompted local resident Jonathan Notley to stand for Parliament in the last election on a ‘ban inappropriate development’ platform. Or the Waltham Forest YMCA building which looks a bit (by which I mean EXACTLY) like a pre-reunification East German detention centre. And the building in Southampton, meant to house students, that has been dubbed the ‘fag butt’ for its fat, squat, out-of-context design.

I’m aware, of course, that architecture, like beauty, does tend to fall into the ‘eye-of-the-beholder’ category; Prince Charles’ description of the National Gallery extension as ‘the carbuncle on the face of an old friend’ (hence the Carbuncle Cup) is at odds with the opinions of many others – myself included – who rather like it.
Having said that, there are buildings whose beauty, magnificence and proportions cannot be denied. Their very existence makes one’s soul sing.

There is no day so bad, no disappointment so severe that cannot be overcome by a glance at the National History Museum, the facade of the Great Eastern Hotel at St Pancras or Westminster Cathedral. The Victorians knew a thing or two about buildings.

And, just to prove I’m not completely stuck in the past, I’d put the new concourse at Kings Cross into that category too.

But not The Shard. That just looks like something out of Tolkein.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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