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New Ugly vs. New Cute

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When it seems that everything that can be done has been done, what new territory is there left to explore? Shape has lost its ability to shock and amaze and, around the same time, people began to think it wasn’t really worth the money anyway. Nobody believed those architects quick to embrace laser cut facades and claim that Surface was the new Shape. All so 2009. Since then, we’ve had newer technologies with buzzwords such as “ceramic” or “3D-printed” so for a while 3D-printed ceramic facades were a thing.

IF we continue to demand or be encouraged to demand an architecture of spectacle that’s supposed to amuse and entertain if not exactly move us then, as is the way with dopamine and addiction, we’re going to need it in increasingly higher doses even if, or rather especially if, we only experience that gratification momentarily and predominantly online. Architectures generated from user considerations, pragmatics, site conditions or any other dimension resistant to imaging simply aren’t going to cut it. And being beautiful isn’t going to either. For one, we never bothered to pin down what it was, preferring to remain in the dark about it while clinging to it as a concept even though it’s not proven a very useful one.

While we were obsessed with Beauty, everything that wasn’t considered Beautiful was – binary creatures that we are – by definition Ugly if it aspired to be Beautiful or Irrelevant if it didn’t. The New Ugliness pretends to not obsess about Beauty but, by being an anti-Beauty, is still as controlled by its imagined rules as it was when it was aspiring to follow them. As a working definition, The New Ugliness aspires to pushing the boundaries of accepted taste I the hope we will mistake it for redefining it. Examples. I’ll start with the unashamedly and defiantly ugly. ZHA’s Antwerp Port House is a shocker. Designed 2006 but built 2009–2016, it was a difficult birth. Try as I may, I can’t unsee it so perhaps I can analyze it to death.

In a nutshell, the three Surface characteristics all look different from anything around or beneath the extension, and they also all have that early 20C Modernist sense of being “new” or “novel”. Shape is most forceful characteristic and the pattern of that triangulated facade the weakest despite Shape and Pattern aligning at the lower truncation and at the aggressive “prow”. The Surface characteristics are unquestionably Consistent, each containing the components of DETACH, even if 1) the superstructure muddies the effect with Colour capable of being seen as associating with either the sky or the water, and even if 2) Pattern is a bit Sketchuppy and not as novel or new as it’s hoped we’ll believe. Rock and hard place. The lower portion is overscaled and the upper portion is underscaled and both sit uneasily with the historic building but, if the upper part showed floor slabs and conventional windows we’d see how five floors of office space have been crammed into a height than three floors of the historic building below. It was never going to be happy.

DETACH is a separating effect that emphasizes difference but the two Placement characteristics are both uniting effects and this, I think, is the strongest source of the visual discomfort. Whether you think of this dissimilar extension as two parts or one, it sits squarely and symmetrically on the historic building even if the contrived gap between the two and that aggressive and directional prow make it look like it doesn’t want to. Things aren’t working together. The Surface characteristics of this addition are all independent of the historic building but the Placement characteristics are totally dependent on it. So, given that, how can we make sense of it? Is the new building trying to detach itself and escape from the historic one? Or is it trying to drag it into the future? There may be more ways. All the same, I think we’re all a bit tired of directional and dynamic architecture that, if you look away for a second and then look back, is still in exactly the same place. Photographs capture but a single moment in time. Video makes it less easy for us to suspend disbelief when viewing supposedly “dynamic” architecture. So, for that matter, would going to have a look in person.

Frank Gehry’s Luma Arles Tower is my next example. It’s a dog, no disrespect to dogs etc.

And it’s as dog from all angles, including above. We once thought The Whole was at least one part of our understanding of Beauty and that nothing could be added or taken away without detracting from that whole. If The Whole was “difficult” to achieve, it could well have been because it was a fiction anyway. Anyway, Gehry’s Luma refuses to play. It’s neither proof nor refutation of the whole whether difficult or not.

Moving on to The New Cute, Terunobu Fujimori’s been pushing these buttons for a while now. Here’s his  Tokyo Plan 2101 that was shown at the 2006 Venice Bienalle. It has, umm, a certain sense of whimsy missing in the Tange plan for Tokyo. Tange used to say “it doesn’t matter if it isn’t realized, at least I made them think.” This is a good sentence to remember. Fujimori could say the same. Both plans are marketing exercises but Fujimori was more aware of his being one.

Since then, Fujimori’s been busy designing cute and whimsical buildings that people want built. I’m not sure what this next one but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. Offhand, I’d say it’s a library and community centre. First of all it creates a landscape and a depression in it through which people walk along a curved path to the entrance. It’s both strange and familiar at the same time. We are not talking about some brave new world. The building is very much grounded – there’s no anti-gravity stuff happening – it’s staying where it is. The colors are earthy tones. The windows are small and few and tell us this is no Modernist building. The shape is vaguely that of a mountain but the chimney tells us otherwise. The roofline is bordered with plants that don’t make some ecological point. We understand the size and scale of this building only by the height of the entrance door and the path leading to it.

What we’re left with is a building that looks like it was built and it inhabited by people not like us. Whoever they are they look friendly and we’d like to visit. This next building of Fujimori’s is less extreme but still manages a similar sense of whimsy. It’s his La Collina Omihachiman. This time we have a straight path leading to the entrance at the compositional middle of the building. Farmland, building and mountains are on-axis and each covered with vegetation. The high-pitched roof isn’t unusual for the Japanese countryside and, for that matter, nor is thatch. That pitch makes three roofs with regular geometry but that, like the mountains, irregular in shape and size. The windows and their relationship to this roof remind us that is not a mountain but a building and a very welcoming one. On the basis of my examples so far, the difference between The New Ugliness and The New Cute is that The New Ugliness attempts to update the old warhorses of weightlessness and modern-ness with technology and geometry whereas The New Cute goes for groundedness and an affinity with Nature that, importantly, can be a real one and not a representation. These buildings are what they are. I hope we’re seeing the end of the post-modern era and not some deeper level of it. Too early to tell.

This third example is another Fujimori building, this time a hotel where the building is a representation of Nature housing hotel rooms that form a virtual landscape for three hotel rooms that, representational as they seem, are still real buildings. I’ll write more about this one in some future post about building/fake landscape mashups. For now, it’s way cuter than BIG’s first mountain building and MAD’s recent LA apartments.

You might have seen this one on designboom or any of the other usual places. It’s the Dalezhiye Kindergarten by dika design for the city of Leshan in China. It’s still a proposal but our future could feature more colour and less self-similarity.

dika design are busy. This is their Lollipop Ideal Kindergarten in Yunnan Province, China, 2019. It may be pink, but it’s a serious educational building.

Here’s another dika design kindergarten from this year, again in Yunnan.

Here’s a link to a China ArchDaily article showing ten new kindergartens. ArchDaily being ArchDaily, you’ve probably already seen the same content in some other language. One of the ten is MAD architects’ 2017 Lecheng Courtyard Kindergarten. a

It’s not so cute but I include it to show that kindergarten design and the education of children is taken seriously in China. I’m always loathe to use the word playful with respect to the design of buildings because buildings do serious things and none more so than those that look after and educate children. It’s not surprising that kindergartens make good examples of The New Cute but behind all the colours and shapes are educational buildings with a serious purpose. How these buildings look actually makes little difference to what they do. Any childminding centre can look after children so their parents can perform the economic function of work but this emphasis on kindergarten design is to produce social capital rather than exploit it. However childish The New Cute might appear to us, children will grow out of it like they do clothes and toys. I’m looking forward to what happens when they do.


  • Hi Graham, best greetings for the new year! I was just driving by the Unknown building which is called ”the valley” in Amsterdam and read your post the day before… It is from MVRDV, you’ll find more about it here
    Quite a spectacle to drive on the highway and see this collection of architectural singularities. Some are still being completed. I guess it’s also meant that way, as an experience from the car…

  • The Shiroiya Hotel is by Sou Fujimoto and accordingly the inside doesn’t appear to be so cute (maybe whimsy and shock in one package)

    • Yore probably right. I never thought we’d be talking about the difference between whimsy and cuteness but here we are! I’ll be keeping track of this.

  • Will Alsop (OCAD in Toronto) and Hundertwasser send their greetings! H.’s Mould Manifesto might make for a an interesting fellow traveler in a different lane to the Cute (TM) and Hobbit fantasies. Wonderful as always.
    But the line about an endgame of PoMo is really intriguing. Surface, symbol, and communication; maybe we’re finally approaching James Wines and SITE’s architecture-as-public-art, or at least having another pass at it. “De-Architecture” is well worth revisiting!