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The trouble with modern architecture...

During Architecture Week, media attention is focused on the best - and the worst - of the buildings that grace - or blight - our towns and cities. Architects are like gods. They make the world around us - well, at least the man-made world. Architects can enhance the urban environment, or they can help to degrade and destroy it.

The term 'Modern Architecture' produces mixed reactoins in people. Whilst traditional landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, earn widespread approval, opinions on the new, such as the Gherkin, New York's proposed Freedom Tower and the MI5 building, are divided.

And that for me is one of the major problems with modern architecture. There is no overall consensus about what constitutes good - and bad.

What some view as a masterpiece, others see as an eyesore.

In the 19th century, there appears to have been less controversy about style, though I'm not absolutely certain about this. In Victorian times it was universally deemed appropriate that public buildings should be richly ornamented, and draw on the styles of past times, for example Manchester Town Hall. There was controversy about the cost, but not the appearance of the building, which quickly became Manchester's best loved landmark, featuring prominently on postcards and souvenirs to this day.

Today there appears to be no consensus about what a new civic building should look like. Dublin City Council's offices constructed on Wood Quay in the 1990s may be regarded by connoisseurs a commendable piece of minimalism and functionality, but I can find no images of it on the post card racks or souvenir shops on O'Connell St.

Manchester's Urbis Centre is one of the most photographed landmarks in the city, but I've also heard people say it's ugly, not in keeping with its setting, and should be torn down.

Whatever you build, someone is going to say it's rubbish. The result of this I believe is that in a lot of cases, architects aim for 'lowest common denominator' trying not to offend or be controversial, thereby avoiding the scorn of their peers or the general public. This type of architecture often uses the cheapest materials and is designed with the least amount of imagination, effort or originality. I have a word for it: Banalitecture.

I believe we can see the result of this in the many identikit apartment blocks springing up around major cities, all indistinguishable from each other, all using basically the same materials - often wall to wall cheap and tacky terracotta tiles - rearranged to fit the brief by the computer software.

How is it that so many buildings are so rectangular and functional, they look as if they've been designed by a computer? Because they have been designed using a computer. It's said that the reason why the Gherkin in the City of London is so curvy is that CAD software has advanced so far that it is now able to handle curves.

In my opinion modern buildings should have a 'wow' factor. Every building should strive to be different from every another, make innovative use of design features and materials, be unique, daring, quirky, and eccentric.

But that's just my opinion.

Most modern architecture isn't like that, though there are a few exceptions. Many of those exceptions are my favourite modern buildings. Some people may disagree with my choice, but I don't care!

Five of my favourite recently constructed buildings are on the right - in no particular order.

Aidan O'Rourke has been interested in architecture from an early age. Architect was on his childhood list of preferred careers (along with Astronaut and Artist). He has strong opinions on architecture, often expressed in his website Eyewitness in Manchester, part of Manchester Online. He regards himself not as an expert but an enthusiastic amateur, aiming to stimulate interest and debate. His site aidan.co.uk is number one in Google on a search for 'modern architecture London'.

Use the search box to see if this website is still number one in Google for 'Modern Architecture London' - or do a search on a topic of your choice.


Read a very interesting article with the same title as this one on the BBC news website

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-08-15

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