If you found yourself in Pyongyang, there would probably be more immediate things running through your mind than how repellent the skyline is. The North Koreans may not be all that concerned about it, given all the other pressing concerns of being a North Korean. Like the lack of food. And water. And, I suspect, the overbearing presence of an apocalyptically militant dictatorship.
But if you took a glance around you, walking down Pongwha Street, you’d see the ugliest building ever made. In fact, probably the ugliest man-made thing ever: the Ryugyong Hotel. It is remarkable to think that the building was designed by someone with eyes. It’s certainly no friend to those blessed with the gift of sight. Critics have said it looks like a supervillain’s crack at a Holiday Inn, but it more closely resembles how a five-year old draws mountains; one massive triangle surrounded by two smaller ones. It rends the Pyongyang skyline asunder by virtue of being clad in a particularly annoyingly iridescent glass and by being 800 feet taller than all the other buildings in the city. It looks like an arrowhead, which should point to a massive neon sign floating in the sky reading, “I was a dreadful mistake.”
No other word can describe it than ‘monstrosity’; the architectural counterpart to Godzilla. Indeed, our modern context of what ‘monstrosity’ means has moved from the pages of literature to the movie screen, and now to the buildings that surround us. The monsters of the modern age are chimeras of glass and steel, that rise hundreds of feet into the air. They scrape the sky, and our retinas. They impress upon the way we think and feel. Why else do you think all the Somerville freshers look perpetually shell-shocked? It would be impossible to feel any other way if you had to live in Vaughan accommodation, a building that boasts an exoskeleton made of concrete and regret.
Vile skylines are a global issue. London gets off comparatively lightly. The Shard is actually stylish, though balanced by being woefully small. It needed to be taller, because now it seems like a remembrance monument for expectations not quite met. Dubai went the other way with the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building that also uncannily resembles the equipment used in IVF.
Could you describe what the Tokyo cityscape looks like? I don’t think anyone could. It’s difficult to know what would be worse; to be affronted by a few very ugly buildings, or surrounded by many mildly ugly ones. Tokyo sits in the latter category. It has a skyline so bland and non-descript that I can imagine that’s what it must be like to live on a Monopoly board.
Psychogeographers would say that what surrounds us has tremendous influence on our minds. They’d have a field day with the Ryugong. Enclosed as we are by droning towerblocks, or one-off architectural aneurisms, it is hard to feel anything but hopeless. There’s very little to find inspiring or uplifting in a building called the Walkie Talkie, which looks exactly as confusing as its name suggests. Did anyone ask for a building resembling a handheld, two-way radio transceiver? I refuse to believe anyone has ever looked at a walkie-talkie and thought, “I’d like to live in that.” But what if we flip the question around. What do our buildings reveal about our own collective psyche?
Moral degeneracy. Our crumbling societal standards have clearly echoed into the bricks inside which we live, producing the monstrosities of our modern architecture. What with £1.99 two-litre White Ace ciders, over two-thirds of marriages ending in divorce, dropping church attendance and this new-fangled electronic pornography, no wonder our buildings have become repellent. We became the monsters, and our buildings simply followed.
Oh, to hark back to the days of the Empire State Building. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, all solid and reliable, smelling of law and order from 1931. That’s what a self-respecting building looks like – a monolith of dependability, caked in 200,000 square feet of limestone. It only took two weeks to draw the building designs as well, from the foundations through to the Art Deco-inspired top 16 floors. It’s not like these modern sordid buildings, with their prurient protrusions and their voyeuristically transparent glass walls.
The skylines of today are amalgamations of fear and wonder that pervert our minds and transform the human race into the immoral rogues we now are. Powerless to resist their pernicious auras, we now worship diligently at the phallic shrine of the Gherkin. I remember the days when architectural marvels were something to be proud of, a reassuring sign of humankind’s ingenuity, and not a perpetually wailing reminder of how far we have fallen from the heights of our prelapsarian, pre-Norman Foster days of architectural innocence.