Thursday, September 12, 2019

Ugliness and Judgment

Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye
Timothy Hyde
Princeton University Press, April 2019

Hardcover | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches | 232 pages | 70 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-0691179162 | $35.00

Publisher Description:
When buildings are deemed ugly, what are the consequences? In Ugliness and Judgment, Timothy Hyde considers the role of aesthetic judgment—and its concern for ugliness—in architectural debates and their resulting social effects across three centuries of British architectural history. From eighteenth-century ideas about Stonehenge to Prince Charles’s opinions about the National Gallery, Hyde uncovers a new story of aesthetic judgment, where arguments about architectural ugliness do not pertain solely to buildings or assessments of style, but intrude into other spheres of civil society.

Hyde explores how accidental and willful conditions of ugliness—including the gothic revival Houses of Parliament, the brutalist concrete of the South Bank, and the historicist novelty of Number One Poultry—have been debated in parliamentary committees, courtrooms, and public inquiries. He recounts how architects such as Christopher Wren, John Soane, James Stirling, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe have been summoned by tribunals of aesthetic judgment. With his novel scrutiny of lawsuits for libel, changing paradigms of nuisance law, and conventions of monarchical privilege, he shows how aesthetic judgments have become entangled in wider assessments of art, science, religion, political economy, and the state.

Moving beyond superficialities of taste in order to see how architectural improprieties enable architecture to participate in social transformations,
Ugliness and Judgment sheds new light on the role of aesthetic measurement in our world.
dDAB Commentary:
With "ugliness" in its title and seven chapters devoted to the architecture of England and London over a roughly 300-year period, I figured Timothy Hyde's Ugliness and Judgment would involve some references to Roger Scruton, the British philosopher who wrote one of the few (if only) books on architectural aesthetics in philosophical terms. Scruton wrote The Aesthetics of Architecture in the late 1970s; since then he's been an outspoken critic of modern architecture and in recent years he's been in the news for his on-again, off-again, on-again position at the UK's Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, which "will advise government on how to promote and increase the use of high-quality design for new build homes and neighborhoods." Scruton can be seen as a symbol of an aesthetic, taste-based view of architecture, one that clearly favors buildings designed in Classical styles over Modern ones. But when I looked for Scruton's name in the index of Hyde's book, or checked out his list of the five best books on architecture and aesthetics, the aesthete's name is nowhere to be found. This omission hints that Ugliness and Judgment, while it discusses taste and style at length, isn't really about those things; it's about how judgments of ugliness play out in the social circumstances of architecture.

Hyde traces the interactions of taste, style, ugliness, judgment, and social circumstances — how the future of buildings, especially public ones, are debated — through seven chapters in chronological order, from Bath in the 1700s to the competition for the National Gallery Extension in London in the 1980s. Each chapter ekes out a particular angle on the overall thesis. "The Monarch," for instance, presents the National Gallery competition, in which Prince Charles famously derided the winning scheme by Ahrends Burton & Koralek as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." Although his words played a part in the competition being set aside in favor of a direct commission for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Postmodern extension, Hyde is interested in how Prince Charles inserted himself into the debate (at a RIBA lecture, not in an official competition forum) and convinced the greater public — of which royalty could hardly relate directly — that he spoke for them. "The Profession," the chapter that includes Mies van der Rohe's posthumously squashed Mansion House Square project, is also enlightening. Hyde presents the history of the project and the politics around it as he also focuses on the role of authorship in aesthetic judgments. These projects, in which aesthetics and taste were introduced to modify their outcomes, are indicative of how matters of aesthetics and taste are never so simple — and never just about the way a building looks.

Author Bio:
Timothy Hyde is associate professor in the history and theory of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Constitutional Modernism: Architecture and Civil Society in Cuba, 1933–1959. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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