The Acne Award: An Open Call
Phoenix High School, London, nominated for the Carbuncle Cup. Courtesy: Carbuncle Cup.
For the last few years, the Brits have had both an Oscar for
best building and a Rotten Tomato for foul architecture: the Stirling Prize and
the Carbuncle Cup. The former was named
for the late, great James Stirling. The Prince of Wales, who disliked and dislikes most modern architecture, once called Richard Rogers' design for
an addition to the National Gallery a “carbuncle on the beloved face” of the
Gallery. So we have the Carbuncles:
examples of what the public thinks are the excesses of modern architecture.
The Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres by Bennetts Associates Architects, nominated for the Stirling Prize. Photo: Peter Cook.
It would be relatively easy to determine what might be the
American entrants into an equivalent of the Stirling Prizes. They could include some recent museum
additions, the latest phase of the High Line Park, or schools or libraries that
have been recently completed in L.A. They
may, however, lack any of the bravura qualities that this year’s British buildings
display. More to the point, the American
nominees could include some of the more daring structures designers such as
Thom Mayne and Steven Holl have created in China (export products are allowed in
the Stirling Prize, but not imports). But what of the Carbuncle Cup?
Freedom Tower. Courtesy: SOM
I would be hard pressed to think of a building at a large
enough scale that is truly awful enough to be a candidate. Certainly there have been enough mediocre
buildings, but few are so startlingly bad and offensive for me to sit up and take
notice. That is partially the result of
economic conditions: We haven’t seen a great deal of large-scale office
buildings, or even the kind of stadia and other civic extravaganzas that
marked, or marred, the beginning of this century. But there is also a generic blandness that
has set in across America. Typical is
the evolving scene at Ground Zero, which seems to be rising to distinct
mediocrity, although there you could argue that the official designs come from
non-Americans, even if Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill control most of the
There are many run-of-the-mill apartment towers everywhere
from Chicago to New York to Miami, and lots of earnest, but rather
characterless blocks up and down the West Coast, from Seattle all the way to
San Diego. At the same time, some of
those structures stand out for being better than others, but not enough to
merit Stirling Prize-type recognition, or to be Carbuncles.
Constraint, whether it is economic or code-based, is saving
us from excess, while also depriving us from the kind of large-scale,
transformative architecture that might lift the spirit and improve the
human-made landscape for all. The result
is a kind of architecture deficit.
I could be wrong, however, as I only see a limited amount of
new buildings as I cross the country and cruise the Internet. I would be happy to entertain nominations for
either, shall we say, the Louis Kahn Award or the Acne Award.