Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The ten ugliest buildings in Cambridge

We all walk past buildings and sometimes say how awful they look.  (We might do the same when driving, although for some reason a car window makes the buildings outside look much less immediate.) But is our judgement of any value? Is it just that I disliked building X while you liked it, and that’s all there is to say? It’s just a matter of taste?

We tend to notice buildings when we see them for the first time; and even then, only when we observe them in a certain way. When you visit a place you tend to look at the buildings more carefully. When you live somewhere, as I now live in Cambridge, you rapidly forget all about buildings as buildings. You use them, you walk past them, but after a few days or perhaps weeks you usually forget that they had a designer and a purpose. So it takes a special effort to drag yourself out of the everyday, and to look at the buildings around you.

Why ten ugly buildings? Why not ten beautiful buildings? The answer to this is simple. By looking at a building that in some way fails – fails its users, fails its surroundings, for example -  it might be possible to come up with a set of criteria for what makes a building succeed. Heaven knows, we have enough buildings around us to draw some conclusions. So my goal is to determine if there is a set of criteria, of principles, by which it is possible to measure if a building is a success or a failure. And to some extent the comparison of buildings is both fun and also revealing.  

Another limitation of identifying an ugly building is that I may never have been inside the building concerned. This is certainly a failing, but gaining access to buildings is often so difficult I would never be able to comment about most of the buildings I see if I had to see inside them. I would love to, and I will try to enter them, but in many cases it cannot be done.

One specific reason for noticing buildings in Cambridge has been the book Hideous Cambridge, by David Jones (2013). I saw this book in the window of a bookshop on Hills Road, and I admit I was intrigued. A full review of this book would take up a full post, but suffice it to say that Mr Jones has very definite opinions about buildings that fail – often on aesthetic grounds, but sometimes others, and it has been very helpful to have another opinion on Cambridge buildings to measure against mine. If I quote many examples from Hideous Cambridge it should not be thought that the book is without merit. For example, Mr Jones rightly stresses the importance of buildings on the approach to Cambridge, whether via the train station or coming in by road. But he does have a list of worst buildings, including Botanic House and Parkside Piece.

To get the series underway I wanted to include one of the most noticeable ugly buildings, right in the corner of Parker’s Piece and adjacent to Regent Street. As I approached it last year, I noticed it had scaffolding around it, and to my surprise, I find that it has been demolished! This was the University Arms Hotel, or more precisely, the sixties extension to it facing Regent Street. This was designed by Feilden and Mawson, 1965-66, and Pevsner states “Not their best work”. But since I can’t illustrate because I didn’t get to it in time, any discussion of why or how it was not their best work is clearly not possible. I hope my selection of buildings will not always result in their immediate demolition, so we will have something to look at and to discuss, in future posts. 

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