Viewpoint (June 01, 2002)
Forbes.com, the companion Web site to the venerable U.S. business magazine, published an article last month entitled “The World’s Ugliest Buildings.” It identified 10 buildings–eight in the U.S., two in Britain–which the article’s author, Betsy Schiffman, deems to have committed a serious architectural offence, summed up as: “millions of dollars are spent with the goal of creating a noble edifice and the result is still ugly.” At one level, the appearance of this article in the business press is a measure of how architecture has re-emerged in the public consciousness; the list would not have been published if Forbes didn’t think its readers would be interested. The article plays the populist card, citing as inspiration the negative response of “some of the world’s greatest architecture critics: average New Yorkers” to architect Raimund Abraham’s recently opened and critically acclaimed Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan.
Judging from the article’s title, it’s almost a given that such a compendium would seem capricious and arbitrary, and in this respect the Forbes list is true to form. With such diverse entries as Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle, Arthur Erickson’s Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale University and Thomas Beeby’s Chicago Public Library, there doesn’t appear to be any rigour or particular aesthetic sensibility behind the projects’ selection. Consequently, it would be easy to dismiss the article as superficial and indulgent; however a more careful reading reveals a disturbing subtext.
Although the article is presented as a critique of “ugly” buildings, the commentary accompanying virtually every entry contains a rant about the project’s cost. This is most blatant in the case of Richard Rogers’ Millennium Dome in London. Ms. Schiffman writes: “It would be hard not to hate a building with a $1.25 billion [U.S.] price tag… Given the amount of money spent on this space-odyssey novelty act, British architect Richard Rogers probably would have been hung out to dry regardless of the outcome.”
On May 3, the same day the article was posted on the Forbes.com Web site, Brian Carter, former Chair of the Architecture Program at the University of Michigan, spoke at the Ontario Association of Architects’ annual conference in Niagara Falls on the significance of London’s Millennium projects. Carter cited Rogers’ Millennium Dome as a pre-eminent example of how a project can serve as a catalyst for urban renewal. The Dome, although popularly described as a white elephant, has resulted in many long-term benefits such as the extension of public transit and the development of housing. Ugly? That’s a matter of opinion. Expensive? Certainly. But Carter’s comments serve as an important reminder that there’s often more to a project than meets the eye or the perceived bottom line.
The resurgent public interest in architecture can serve to foster an informed, constructive and critical debate about the buildings that shape our expanding and evolving cities. The business press, which reaches many influential decision-makers, can play an important role in raising awareness of the many social, cultural and economic benefits of good design. Unfortunately, articles like “The World’s Ugliest Buildings” perpetuate the stereotype of the free-spending, irresponsible architect and encourage the kind of knee-jerk philistinism that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Marco Polo