Beyond Buildings


The Acne Award: An Open Call

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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 outcome.


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.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.