Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ugly and Uglier...

Once again in the category of things stumbled upon while looking up other things, I came across this list found on the site of Architectural Digest, of what in its writer's opinon are the 31 ugliest skyscrapers in the world. As with any such list, one can debate until all hours the merits (dubious as they may be) of most of the entries. They say "one man's trash is another's treasure", and many of the buildings listed have won presitgious, non-dubious awards for their splendid design.

At the risk of exposing myself to humiliation, I have to admit that I actually like some of the buildings on the list. Munich's BMW Headquarters with its four bundled, cylindrical towers for example, appears to pay homage to Chicago's iconoclastic architect, Bertrand Goldberg. The author's comment on the building is this:
(It) was designed to look like a four-cylinder automobile engine. And while that was a novel idea, the end product appears more childish than anything.
Maybe it's just me but I think we can all use a little more childish design and a lot less dour, authoritarian architecture, which this list is full of. Take the 1955 Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science ,listed just above the Munich building. Designed by Lev Rudnev, the foremost pracitioner of Soviet, Stalanist architecture, the Warsaw building evokes American skyscrapers of a generation earlier such as Cleveland's iconic Terminial Tower, which itself was inspired by the Renaissance top of the campanille of the Cathedral of Saville. But Rudnev's building looks as if he took the enormuos boot that puncuates the intro of Monty Python's Flying Circus (complete with sound effects)  and squished Terminal Tower down to half its original height and twice its girth, taking away all that is thrilling and lovely about that building and leaving us with a ponderous structure with all the charm of an old Soviet Politburo meeting. That said it is still one of the better buildings on the list in my opinion.

A much more charming govrnment building (which isn't hard), is the National Fisheries Development Board Building, in Hyderibad, India, which is built appropriately enough, in the shape of a fish. It's interesting how two buildings devoted to governmental bureaucracy could not be any more different.

Carrying on the long and glorious tradition of "buildings that resemble the things they sell" is the former Longaberger Company Headquarters, in Newark Ohio, built in the shape of a giant picnic basket, handles included. The key word here is "former", as the picnic basketmaker fell on hard times at the turn of this century and vacated its made-to-order headquarters for much more banal digs in the company's manufacturing plant down the road. Which begs the question, who, other than a picnic basket company, would want to occupy a building in the shape of a picnic basket, a company that manufactures ant repellant perhaps?

Some of the buildings on the list are ugly by virture of their being built in the wrong place. A good example is the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, which is a perfectly fine if forgettable Modern pile that would be right at home say on, Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, but not so much in the French capital. The same can be said for New York's Met Life Tower (formerly the Pan Am Building), also on the list, whose construction blocked one of the best vistas in the city,, up and down Park Avenue. Had it been built practically anywhere else it would have been met with a "whatever" rather than universal scorn and derision. Contrast these two buildings with Trump Tower Las Vegas, a truly hideous gold clad building matching its namesake owner the Presi... (OK I won't go there), which fits in perfectly with its tacky surroundings. One I suppose could pick a list of the 31 ugliest skyscrapers in the world and never leave Vegas. The hard part I imagine would be to single one out, sort of like sorting out the smelliest dead fish among many washed up on a beach a week after a storm.

Buildings with giant gaps in their midsections (sorry I don't know the technical term for them) have been all the rage in the last twenty years, I suppose giving architects and structural engineers a platform to display their daring high-wire acts. Two on them appear on this list, the Elephant Building, yes because it looks like an elephant, in Bankok, and the chock-a-block Mirador Building in Madrid, which could be described as Le Corbusier meets Moishe Safdie.

Having a wacky color scheme seems to be a criterion for entry on the list and several buildings that would not even have been runners up were it not for their coat of many colors paint job.

Frankly I don't find any of these buildings (with the exception of Trump Vegas) particularly odious, the worst I could say about them is to sum it up as a friend would: " I wouldn't say no but I wouldn't say please."

However for me there is a special place in hell reserved for Brutalism, that very seventies style of architecture which encouraged its followers to use any material they chose, as long as it was concrete. This movement for better living through solidified aggregate compound meant that architects could use that very plastic material to create any shape they desired, each one it turned out being uglier than the one before it. It seems nobody in that decade could get brutal enough, college campuses who were unfortuante to have boasted building campaigns in that era are chock full of them. In the hands of  designers who had a highly refined understanding of balance and form like Harry Weese, and the afore mentioned Bertrand Goldberg, these buildings could be nothing short of inspiring. But in less capable hands, the vast majority of them. Brutalist architecture was just well, brutal.

One skyscraper on the list, a structure that combines all the criteria that make for a truly hideous building, is 375 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. It's also known as Intergate Manhattan, and also as it is listed in the article, the Verizon Building, but it should not be confused with a great Art Deco building sometimes referred to by the same name, located about a half-mile west on the Hudson River side of the island. The ugly Verizon Building was built as a telephone switching tower in the seventies, combining all the worst qualities of Modernism in its severely pared down understatement which includes the bare minimum of fenestration , and Brutalism in its chosen material. Given the purely functional nature of the building, its design probabaly makes sense. The problem is, this building sits on an even more promenent site than the former Pan Am Building, right at the foot of the Manhattan side of the of the Brooklyn Bridge. Which means 375 Pearl Street in all its banal glory, sits prominently right in the heart of one of the most magnificent vistas anywhere in the world, the lower Manhattan Skyline as seen from the great bridge.

Yep, bulidings just don't get any worse than that in my book, in every sense of the word, hands own the ugliest building in the world.

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