Igor Toronyilalic

The ugly truth

Arguments over ugliness are never just about aesthetics but about the most pressing social and political concerns of the day

The ugly truth
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Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye

Timothy Hyde

Princeton, pp. 232, £

Why Cities Look the Way They Do

Richard J. Williams

Polity, pp. 201, £

Timothy Hyde’s Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye is not about why we find things ugly. It’s not even about what ugliness is, or why our understanding of what it is see-saws so violently. We don’t learn why people once loathed John Nash’s All Souls at Langham Place, one MP calling it ‘a horrible object’, or what insanity led Edwin Lutyens to condemn — as ‘an ugly angle’ — roofs slanted at 45 degrees.

The mud-slinging doesn’t interest Hyde. How the slung mud shapes us excites him much more. Arguments over ugliness, he contends, are never just about aesthetics. They’re a proxy for social, political, even theological, concerns. When William Morris denounced the ‘sickening hideousness’ of London’s architecture, he was really having a go at commerce. To call out ugliness, then, is a call to arms. While beauty basks lazily and uselessly in its own perfection, ugliness spurs us into action.

Dividing the book between half  a dozen conflicts, from the transformation of 18th-century Bath to the fights over One Poultry, Hyde maintains strict neutrality. But he shows a twinge of sympathy, as should we all, for the plight of Mr and Mrs De Aubrey of the city of London, whose ‘abominable’ neighbours decided to take down the walls of their cess pit in the spring of 1333. The dispute ended in court, the De Aubreys triumphant. The beginnings of what would become building regs emerge from the complaints of these early Hyacinth Buckets.

Ugliness furthered science. There’s a whole chapter on how the tons of soot raining down on London in the 19th century, disintegrating the stone of the Houses of Parliament, led to inquiries into the make up of the atmosphere and aesthetic experimentation: stronger colours to withstand the dirt and a turn to terracotta which resisted the corrosion.

Ugliness transformed libel. One key moment was the now-hard-to-believe stream of attacks on Sir John Soane’s constructions, denounced as  ‘eyesores’ and a ‘public nuisance’. His incredibly thin-skinned response saw him take virtually everyone to court, and lose case after case — deliciously, he was even defeated in one of his own buildings.

And then there are the times when we have revelled in ugliness. Look at our obsession with ruins, or the awkward churches of William Butterfield, an intentionally ugly rebuke to oppressive Georgian architecture. Look at the South Bank. Critics who argued that the arts complex was ugly were, wrote Charles Jencks, like those who condemned Francis Bacon for being ‘unbeautiful’. The place was built to confuse.

Plenty to sink your teeth into, then, in every chapter, but beware you don’t chip them on the prose:

The ugly is that which is not contained within itself nor capable of being contained by something outside itself, and as a disproportionality between architecture and a person, ugliness prevents the proper definition of boundaries, or of what should be separate and intact exteriorities.

It’s ballsy of an author of a book about ugliness to write like that. And Hyde’s central point — that ugliness is more galvanising than beauty and therefore of more use —sounds plausible until you realise you could apply the same rationale to murder.

In London we live with ugliness quite happily. Real-estate logic determines that the most common architectural style is the building site. Scaffolding, netting, cranes: this is the real London vernacular. You can see it on display to epic effect in Parliament Square right now, the vast rig making a witchy Cape Canaveral of dinky old Big Ben.

Both this and Hyde’s observations are perfect examples of the central thesis of Richard J. Williams’s Why Cities Look the Way They Do: that processes — whether architectural criticism or financial capital — are what really mould cities, not the architects themselves.

Williams is an affable guide, breezy and smart. And brave. ‘I hate Venice,’ he declares in the first sentence. The truly spectacular thing about La Serenissima, he argues, is not the city itself, but the sight and effect of the tourist industry devouring it: the cruise ships that double the size of the population, for example, or the way the city must be kept in a state of permanent decay to attract the ships in the first place.

Power, money, sex, culture — these are the real urban designers. You see this in the Walkie Talkie, which flares outward towards the top in order to maximise floorspace where the rents are higher; or in the disorientating Bonaventure Hotel in LA, ‘designed to produced distracted visitors, happy to consume their way out of trouble’.‘By their nature, cities fail as aesthetic objects’, Williams says. Life messes them up. How we mess them up is where the interest lies. I could have had more on Burleys Flyover, a superficially unlovely bit of Leicester whose teeming activity —Asian supermarkets, small factories, clubs —Williams clearly loves.

To control space is adolescent, he concludes. Give in to chaos – and, Hyde might add, ugliness.  There’s plenty to gain from both.