W.H. Auden concludes the final poem in his 1930 debut collection with instruction to “look shining at/New styles of architecture, a change of heart.” Architecture necessarily thrusts itself into the view of the general public; by choosing it as the art form to “look shining” upon, Auden bestows change in taste accessible to the general population, rather than to merely the rich or highly educated, with promise and hope. However, a change of heart must shift relative to an old perspective.
Indeed, Prince Charles, acting as spokesperson of the old perspective, commented after its completion in 1976 that architect Denis Lasdun’s concrete-heavy, modernist design for the Royal National Theatre was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.” A building, in its inability to be hidden – as opposed to, say, the framed print of a nude painting that, when I was little, I embarrassedly made my parents take down when a friend came round – can evoke a strong gut-response repulsion. Prince Charles, used to the neoclassical symmetry of Buckingham Palace, was clearly appalled by the austere National Theatre. One crucial tension in the design of a structure is between aesthetic integrity and the appeasement of a wider audience.
Happily, the same grandness of scale in architecture that facilitates its impulsive censure also enables its reverent praise. For example, last term I signed up, dutifully, to deliver copies of Cherwell, and was driven around by Timmy, Cherwell’s charismatic, 10-year-loyal delivery driver. Between anecdotes of farcically angry porters, the topic of conversation fell upon St Hilda’s College’s recently completed new buildings. Timmy, who had not been afraid to voice disparaging views of the colleges earlier, remarked how ‘in keeping’ he thought the buildings were with the college and wider city, whilst still looking beautiful and distinctive. I agree with him, though being a St Hilda’s student myself, I cannot claim impartiality. What is interesting is the unprompted praise that architecture can generate, an inversion of the gut-response dislike.
It was this gut-response dislike, though, that made popular the photograph-based blog and subsequent book, Ugly Belgian Houses. Some of the homes that feature only narrowly miss looking stylish, having lost balance tip-toeing on the cutting edge and ending up notably hideous rather than refreshingly inventive; others are temples to poor taste. There are penny-farthing proportions, mismatched exteriors, and vulgar extensions aplenty. Yet the blog’s creator, Hannes Coudenys, remarked on a shift in perspective he had while photographing more and more of these houses. What began as exasperation at ludicrous design became admiration of his country’s propensity to experiment, even when it goes wrong: “It is better to be ugly than to be boring.”
With deviation from norms of style comes risk of ugliness. Being ugly is different from being bland, it is to be distinctive in repulsiveness. Perhaps, though, ugliness is too routinely vilified; to eliminate ugliness in art, the ‘failed’ experiments, is to eliminate experimentation. Auden is defending ugliness when he urges us to “look shining” at new styles of architecture – for new styles, good or bad, are evidence of a humanity leaning towards change, refusing stagnation. The “change of heart” is both the architect’s and the reader’s; the same realisation made by Coudenys, that life is better ugly than boring. Symbolically positioned at the end of his first book, the words point forward to a future forgiving of failure and afire with change. To root for progress, we must also root for ugliness.
Image Credit: Flora Dyson