"When an architect has done something truly awful, they deserve to be kicked.â€ Amanda Baillieu, the august editor of the architectural newspaper Building Design, is not known for mincing her words. Faced with a building as eyewateringly dreary as Liverpoolâ€™s Pier Head Ferry Terminal, though, words fail her: â€œItâ€™s just dross. Look at it. Itâ€™s ... agh!â€
Belfast-based Hamilton Architects, hang your heads in shame, for you have just won 2009â€™s Carbuncle Cup. â€œWe set up the cup four years ago,â€ says Baillieu, â€œas a kind of anti-Stirling Prize. Architects constantly garland themselves with awards. Theyâ€™re tripping over them. But when you see whatâ€™s being built all over the country, you have to think, hold on a minute.â€ The cup has become to next monthâ€™s Stirling Prize what the Razzies, or Golden Raspberries, are to the Oscars, a moment to prick the ego of a profession not known for its shrinking violets. Fellow architects nominate their brethren whose work has not quite come up to the standards of, say, Bob the Builder.
One of this yearâ€™s judges, Sean Griffiths, from architects FAT, says Liverpoolâ€™s ferry terminal won not just for its derivative design, though this is bad enough: â€œThird-rate Zaha Hadid, a crude, jazzy-angled lump of crap, a terrible example of an architecturally illiterate client trying to be groovy and getting it so, so wrong, like a 50-year-old making a fashion faux pas in a disco.â€
What makes it worse, he says, is where the thing is, slap-bang on Liverpoolâ€™s waterfront, a Unesco World Heritage Site, beside the cityâ€™s Three Graces. â€œIt literally is a monstrous carbuncle on the face of an old friend,â€ he says, with a knowing nod to the Prince of Walesâ€™s infamous quip. â€œAnd itâ€™s now the gateway to my home city.â€
Both the architect and Mersey Travel, which commissioned the building, inevitably feel not the slightest hint of shame. â€œWeâ€™re proud of it,â€ says a spokesman for Hamilton Architects. Us too, says another from Mersey Travel, adding: â€œWeâ€™re not desperately interested in the opinions of two journalists and an architect, to be honest.â€
And therein lies the problem. Because the terminal building represents one of two trends that have come to dominate British architecture. They think they got an icon, says Baillieu. Indeed they do. â€œWith Mersey Travel weâ€™ve jointly faced up to the challenge of designing an iconic building,â€ says Hamilton Architects, â€œone thatâ€™s vibrant and multi-use, and the nucleus of the new Pier Head Plaza, drawing the public to a formerly barren public space. Itâ€™s in a location that can be viewed from all sides, so itâ€™s been conceived as a strong sculptural form.â€
Baillieu says: â€œThere are too many architects out there doing funny shapes and wonky windows. Truth is, only a handful are skilful enough to do it well.â€ The crap icon is, alas, now an all-too common sight in our cities, designed by an architect who thinks theyâ€™re the next Frank Gehry, for some client who wants the next headline-grabber. Well Liverpool sure got headlines.
The second trend? The â€œawful drabness of buildings built under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI)â€, says Baillieu, like so many of the new schools and hospitals up and down the country â€” or the two university buildings in Nottingham and Edinburgh that came second and third in the cup.
Indeed, so bad and so numerous has bad British architecture become that it has got its own blog â€” badbritisharchitecture. blogspot.com â€” whose mission statement is â€œI hate the bastards who make these buildings. So here I am, taking the piss out of them.â€
What unites both the crap icon and PFI drabness are the same underlying causes: a lack of cash and a lack of care. Weâ€™ve just been through a 15-year building boom. The country is awash with new office towers, buy-to-let apartment blocks, health centres and shopping malls that will be with us for generations. Most have been built by clients who may have good intentions â€” such as regeneration â€” but who are willing to stump up the money and expertise you need to get real quality. â€œHow do these buildings slip past?â€ asks Baillieu. Simple.
Planning, like so much local democracy in this country, is knackered. Local council planning departments are so cash-strapped and overworked that they have no time for architectural expertise or proper, proactive consultation with us lot. And the result? Well, see for yourself at bdonline.co.uk. And weep.
What would Lexington have made of this one?