News that the “Walkie Talkie”—a.k.a., 20 Fenchurch Street, a London building designed by Rafael Viñoly, FAIA—has won the 2015 Carbuncle Cup made me think, first of all, how wonderful it would be if we had a similar award in this country. I know that some AIA chapters used to have “Lemons” awards for bad structures, but they seem to have disappeared, I assume, as the organization has shifted toward accentuating the positive. In my mind, showing what is truly bad gives you a chance to talk about what is good, and what we could do better.
The Viñoly building is a case in point. It is so bad that the architect allegedly disowns it, although that is not something anybody has been able to confirm. Not only is it ugly and badly placed, but it is actually harmful, creating powerful downdrafts and having fried a few cars that happened to be where its façade focused sunlight (I wrote about it last year when that occurred). It really has few redeeming features.
By pointing out all the ways it is bad, the Carbuncle Cup Award makes us realize what is right: Buildings that fit into their sites and celebrate them, or transform their neighborhoods in an exciting manner; buildings that harness energy in ways that are beneficial; and buildings whose inherent grace and composure contribute to their cityscapes.
The question is what should happen with 20 Fenchurch now. Jonathan Jones suggested in the British newspaper The Guardian that the building should just be torn down. That would seem like a huge waste of resources even for something so unpleasant. In the same article, Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, offers it up as a refugee center. That might not be as far-fetched as it seems—the Kenzo Tange-designed Akasaka Grand Prince Hotel functioned as such after the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, although it has since been torn down. That, however, was already a hotel, and the work that would have to be done to renovate this office building would be substantial.
It makes me wonder whether it just needs a skin job. We are used to architects being called in to save bland and even bad buildings by cladding them, with Jeanne Gang, FAIA’s skin job on the Aqua Tower in Chicago being a notable recent example. In a retroactive mode, Michel Rojkind performed magic on a department store in Mexico City. Could the same not help the Walkie Talkie? Such a skin-deep renovation might not take away from its awkward placement and too-large bulk, but perhaps a little nip and tuck might lighten that visual load on London at the expense of not too much rentable floor area.
The Carbuncle Cup raises a third question. It is named after the Prince of Wales’ judgment that a proposed addition to London's National Gallery would have been “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” The Prince’s judgment on architecture is clear, but not one that all of us share: He believes that classicism is good, and modernism is bad.
In this case the public, not the Prince, nominates the finalists, while a group of critics picks the winner. With so much bad work to go around, I find it difficult to disagree with the picks most years, my only question being why a particular project was worse than any of the other finalists. What often seems to seal the “winner’s” fate is its prominence, as was obviously the case with this year's shortlisted buildings.
The question is whether our tastes, or those of the critics, are infallible. History has too many examples of buildings that were derided and even hated when they were constructed, but are now beloved parts of cities, for us to be too certain. Yes, the PanAm Building behind Grand Central in New York completely altered New York’s cityscape, but is it by now not an integral and even exciting part of Manhattan’s festival of high-rises? Just this year, the British decided to put the British Library on their preservation list, even though it received just about universal negative reaction when it first opened.
Can I imagine a scenario in which we will love the Walkie Talkie? I can, although I do not find it a believable one now. That is why I would suggest the skin job: if we change our mind 10 or 20 years from now, we can always restore this carbuncle to its original sharp and curvy luster.