A new book has been released by architectural historian Timothy Hyde, looking at the architectural controversies that have shaped Britain.
According to Hyde, his inspiration for the book Ugliness and Judgement on Architecture in the Public Eye came partly from the vast number of people who have commented about “ugly” buildings to him.
“Ugliness is an undertheorised dimension of architecture, given how common that critique is,” says Hyde.
“People always think buildings are ugly. Particularly as a historian of modern architecture, I encounter any number of people who say ‘Oh, you’re a modern architectural historian, can you explain, why would an architect ever think to do a building like that?’”
The book goes deeper than just aesthetics however, looking at how disputes over “ugly” buildings have expanded to affect people on a greater scale. One example highlighted in the book is libel laws; in the early 19th century prominent architect Sir John Soane filed a long series of libel cases against critics, which led to a larger evolution of the law.
“There was a prevailing assumption at the time that a work of architecture, a work of art, a work of literature, was an embodiment of its creator,” says Hyde.
A critique of a building, then, could be seen a personal attack on an individual. However, as Soane filed one libel case after another — against people who used terms like “a ridiculous piece of architecture” and “a palpable eyesore” — he continued to lose. A bad review, the legal community decided, was just that.
“In the cases that John Soane brought for libel, all of which he lost … the modern conception that we have within libel law, of art criticism being a special case, emerged,” says Hyde.
“Now what we take for granted, this modern idea that one can criticise a work of architecture or book, without necessarily saying its creator is a bad or immoral person, begins to emerge as a legal concept.”
Another example highlighted by Hyde is environmental policy, which gained traction in Britain due to concerns about the aesthetics of the Houses of Parliament. According to Hyde, the 19th century reconstruction of Britain’s Parliament — the old one burned in 1834 — soon became derailed, in the 1840s, by concerns that its limestone was already decaying and becoming ugly.
A formal inquiry by the end of the 1850s concluded that the sulphuric “acid rain” from London’s sooty atmosphere was corroding the city’s buildings — an important step for the incorporation of science into 19th-century policymaking, and a finding that helped usher in Britain’s 1875 Public Health Act, which directly addressed such pollution.
“Disagreements over questions of ugliness are much more volatile than disagreements over questions of beauty,” says Hyde.
“In some sense, beauty doesn’t matter as much … The stakes are different.”
Few people try to prevent buildings from being built, notes Hyde, if they are merely a bit less beautiful than onlookers had hoped. Perceptions of ugliness, however, tend to precipitate civic battles.
Pictured: MIT architectural historian Timothy Hyde. Credit: Tom Gearty/School of Architecture and Planning