Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The ten ugliest buildings in Cambridge

We all walk past buildings and sometimes say how awful they look.  (We might do the same when driving, although for some reason a car window makes the buildings outside look much less immediate.) But is our judgement of any value? Is it just that I disliked building X while you liked it, and that’s all there is to say? It’s just a matter of taste?

We tend to notice buildings when we see them for the first time; and even then, only when we observe them in a certain way. When you visit a place you tend to look at the buildings more carefully. When you live somewhere, as I now live in Cambridge, you rapidly forget all about buildings as buildings. You use them, you walk past them, but after a few days or perhaps weeks you usually forget that they had a designer and a purpose. So it takes a special effort to drag yourself out of the everyday, and to look at the buildings around you.

Why ten ugly buildings? Why not ten beautiful buildings? The answer to this is simple. By looking at a building that in some way fails – fails its users, fails its surroundings, for example -  it might be possible to come up with a set of criteria for what makes a building succeed. Heaven knows, we have enough buildings around us to draw some conclusions. So my goal is to determine if there is a set of criteria, of principles, by which it is possible to measure if a building is a success or a failure. And to some extent the comparison of buildings is both fun and also revealing.  

Another limitation of identifying an ugly building is that I may never have been inside the building concerned. This is certainly a failing, but gaining access to buildings is often so difficult I would never be able to comment about most of the buildings I see if I had to see inside them. I would love to, and I will try to enter them, but in many cases it cannot be done.

One specific reason for noticing buildings in Cambridge has been the book Hideous Cambridge, by David Jones (2013). I saw this book in the window of a bookshop on Hills Road, and I admit I was intrigued. A full review of this book would take up a full post, but suffice it to say that Mr Jones has very definite opinions about buildings that fail – often on aesthetic grounds, but sometimes others, and it has been very helpful to have another opinion on Cambridge buildings to measure against mine. If I quote many examples from Hideous Cambridge it should not be thought that the book is without merit. For example, Mr Jones rightly stresses the importance of buildings on the approach to Cambridge, whether via the train station or coming in by road. But he does have a list of worst buildings, including Botanic House and Parkside Piece.

To get the series underway I wanted to include one of the most noticeable ugly buildings, right in the corner of Parker’s Piece and adjacent to Regent Street. As I approached it last year, I noticed it had scaffolding around it, and to my surprise, I find that it has been demolished! This was the University Arms Hotel, or more precisely, the sixties extension to it facing Regent Street. This was designed by Feilden and Mawson, 1965-66, and Pevsner states “Not their best work”. But since I can’t illustrate because I didn’t get to it in time, any discussion of why or how it was not their best work is clearly not possible. I hope my selection of buildings will not always result in their immediate demolition, so we will have something to look at and to discuss, in future posts. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Cambridge college that didn’t opt for ostentation


Magdalen College, First Court (largely 16th century)
It is exceptional to discover an Oxford or Cambridge college that is an old foundation but that has not at some point indulged in a craze to display its wealth by building. Today I discovered one: Magdalen College, Cambridge. Of course there are poor colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (Somerville is an example), but as a rule they tend to be the more recent foundations. Magdalen has quite a simple building history, compared to that of most of the older foundations: just one complete quad, and one building (the Pepys Building) that might have formed part of a quad but never quite made it; one side was never built, and the side that was built faces the other way, towards the river.  Magdalen did have space on its original site to extend its building – the Fellows’ Garden is a lovely informal tree-lined walk alongside the River Cam – but, fortunately, never did. The rear side of the Pepys Building is a rather quiet brick range that blends well with the relaxed, almost unkempt style of the garden it faces.

Magdalen College, Fellows' Garden (by the river)

So where to build next? Magdalene College took over many of the buildings on other side of Magdalen Street. Here again, the policy was largely small-scale and unostentatious. Rather than demolishing the higgledy-piggledy set of old buildings they had bought up, the College had them restored, and the result is a marvellous informal collection of buildings. None of the buildings is major in its own right, but the impression overall is of a human-scale neighbourhood – perhaps unique in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, the story on that side of the street isn’t entirely a good one. It’s unfair to single out less than impressive newer buildings alongside an older foundation, but one or two of the 20th-century buildings are very poor. There is a huge block by Edwin Lutyens, Benson Court, 1931-32, which Pevsner praises for its details. The details may be fine, but the overall impression is on overbearing, inharmonious whole. Nice details, perhaps, but lacking any kind of overall statement. If you want proof, simply look towards Powell and Moya’s Cripps Building of 1963-67: bold, stark, but undeniably powerful, and a statement, which Benson Court is not.  Mercifully, the College prevented Lutyens continuing – what he completed was only one-third of his plan.
David Roberts, River Building

Unfortunately, Magdalen College has a building even less successful than Benson Court. It is by David Roberts, the very man who demonstrated such awareness of existing landscapes and interactions between buildings at one end of the site; but in his River Building (1956-57), he manages to build something at the same time ugly, out of touch with its surroundings – not linking to the river any more than it links to the existing buildings on the site - and looking more like retirement flats than student accommodation. It seems such a shame to build something so intrusive when the example of keeping a human-scale collection of buildings is just a few yards away.   

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Victory, by Joseph Conrad: more relief than victory

What was Conrad thinking when he wrote this novel? It feels as though he were not fully engaged, as if he were simply going through the motions of writing. There is nothing here of his best work, which appears to be either (a) a Western response to colonization, and (b) the response of humans to moral challenges, that force them to confront themselves. The two factors often appear together.

But in Victory, there is none of this. One rather feeble man, Heyst, does a good deed but is unfairly condemned for it. As a result, he runs away from society to live on an island by himself (although it turns out that is he not quite by himself – he has a Chinese servant, Wang). He is confronted by some very Western villains who are simply cardboard cut-outs of evilness; they don’t convince. He fails to defend himself or the woman staying with him (who he has rescued from a difficult situation).  That’s it! No great moral controversy; most of the book is about westerners against westerners. As a reader, I wasn’t very bothered about any of them.

My complaints about this novel:
1.      The hero is a ditherer. When confronted by a challenge on his island he fails to take decisive action.
2.      The phrase “motiveless malignity” applies to Heyst’s enemy, Schomberg. He is the mechanism that leads to the denouement. But nobody would be convinced by his arguments.  Why would a gang of murderers chase a man for his money when the company he worked for has gone bust, and there is no indication that has ever had any money?
3.      The novel is written by an omniscient narrator, who takes it in turns to write as if from the standpoints of individual characters. Some of the narrative is written as if by the main female character, Lena, a member of a touring band. That narrative doesn’t ring true. On the basis of this novel, Conrad couldn’t write as a female character.
4.      Where is the moral choice, the quintessential component of a Conrad novel?
5.      Is there ever any questioning of why Heyst retreated to a desert island? After all, it’s a strange thing to do (even if it is matched in another Conrad story, ‘The Planter of Malata`, another rather indifferent Conrad tale, which, it seems was written at the same time as Victory.
6.      A few Shakespearean parallels (Schomberg as Iago, Pedro as Caliban, did not lift the novel above the commonplace.
7.      Is there any awareness of any humanity in the non-western characters? No, they are treated as inferior beings. The character of the Chinese servant, Wang, as described by the narrator, reveals a colonial attitude that does not reflect well on Conrad.  By contrast, Kipling has a respect for and a genuine interest in other civilizations; on the evidence of Victory, Conrad has neither.

Incidentally, where is the victory of the title? The novel ends in disaster for all the major characters. My feeling on completing the novel was more like relief at having finished it.