Wellington Scoop

Can heritage buildings be ugly?

by Christine McCarthy
Can ugly buildings be heritage? This question responds to the idea that ugliness (“ugly,” “eyesore,” “hideous,” “concrete monolith,” “North Korean flat,” etc.) is a reason why the Gordon Wilson Flats should not be saved, while appreciating that for many the Gordon Wilson Flats is not ugly.

Aesthetic taste is clearly subjective, and defining ugliness would likely take a long time and possibly be tedious. But is the accusation of “ugliness” a valid argument against heritage value?

As Leslie Horn, in a review of the UK’s annual “Carbuncle Cup,” noted “ugly isn’t a great way to discuss architecture … That’s a bit of a generalization – and it’s not adding anything to the conversation”, whereas Art Now and Then’s blog on “Ugly Architecture” suggests that “Ugly can simply evolve due to changes in taste” or be “simply strange, some even downright admirable (if not attractive) in their effort to break from traditional concepts of beauty in favor of adventurous architectural innovation.”

Perhaps more pertinent is whether or not ugliness is relevant in deciding whether or not a building has heritage value. There are many buildings which have been described as “ugly” which have also been recognised as having significant heritage significance.

Moore Street electricity substation, Sheffield (Jefferson Sheard, 1968)

For example, in 2013, English Heritage Grade II-listed an electricity substation in Moore Street, Sheffield (Bryan Jefferson, 1968). More recently (in January 2015), they gave Grade 2 listings to buildings described by The Telegraph as “buildings, which many critics deem to be ugly eyesores.” The buildings were listed because they “show how architecture responded to radical changes in the workplace following the end of the Second World War.”

MEA House, Newcastle (1974)

MEA House, for example, being “the first purpose-built building to house multiple community service organisations under a single roof.“

In 2013, Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage

admitted that listing modern buildings, which some people saw as “concrete monstrosities,” could be controversial. … “Some still view the buildings of the era as concrete monstrosities, others as fine landmarks in the history of building design.”

The 2013 listings co-incided with English Heritage exhibition “Brutal and Beautiful,” which examined England’s post-war architecture (1945-), an era of architecture which includes Brutalism – so named because of its use of concrete (from the French béton brut meaning “raw concrete”). Brutalist architecture is frequently targetted as the poster child for architecture ugliness. The name “Brutalist” often doesn’t help, but the committed nature of the use of concrete in these buildings can sometimes be confrontational; the sculptural boldness of the material stunningly primeval.

In Melbourne the word “challenging” has been used to describe the anticipated public response to saving heritage buildings from the postwar era, “because of the absence of decorated and jewelled architecture. … [National Trust heritage advocate Emily Piper] said it was not unusual for people to struggle to appreciate buildings from the recent past.”

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones in a slightly different vein states that:

“Unattractive, Brutalist architecture should be preserved because it’s unique, not because it’s pretty … even horrendously ugly and soulless abominations are part of our architectural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations.”

Donald Tellalian is more cautious in his language:

“I hesitate to characterize some of Boston’s most notable buildings of the 1960s and ’70s as ugly. The visibility, relevance, and, yes, beauty of some of these buildings requires us to maintain them, light them, and attend to landscaping and their immediate urban context. … These buildings remain part of our stylistic heritage. Lack of interest, care, respect, and creative retrofit guarantee that, as Keane puts it, “ugly persists.””

Alana Schetzer has noted that the disparity between heritage expert and public opinion could potentially leave a hole in our historic understanding of architecture:

“And considering that the next wave of buildings to be considered for preservation are examples of brutalist, featureless, modern and post-war architecture, experts are worried we are leaving a generation of buildings that showcase the city’s architectural evolution vulnerable to developers.”

In the same vein, one heritage advisor (Felicity Lewis, National Trust, Australia) noted:

“We’ve got the situation now where what people traditionally think of as heritage is Edwardian and Victorian-era buildings … Those styles are quite well represented on heritage overlays, so what the National Trust is trying to do now is to focus on the future of heritage; these are the buildings that are significant but might be seen as challenging,”

The distraction of ugliness obscures the ambitions of the architecture under question.

Boston City Hall (Kallman, McKinnall & Knowles, c1962)

As the architect of Boston City Hall (once named “the World’s Ugliest Building,” and ancestor of Wellington’s own National Library building on Molesworth Street) said:

“We distrust and have reacted against an architecture that is absolute, uninvolved and abstract. We have moved towards an architecture that is specific and concrete, involving itself with the social and geographic context, the program, and methods of construction, in order to produce a building that exists strongly and irrevocably, rather than an uncommitted abstract structure that could be any place and, therefore, like modern man— without identity or presence.”

If ideas of ugliness are foregrounded and given weight, then our consideration of the value of specific buildings – and the era of architecture that they come from – will be ignored. It’s also easy to forget that in the 1970s and 80s – when many buildings now cherished were underthreat – insults like “ugly,” “eyesore,” and “Flat Earth Society,” were thrown at those heritage buildings and the groups trying to save them.

Christine McCarthy is president of the Wellington Architectural Centre. This article was first published on its website.


  1. Peter, 17. August 2017, 23:03

    Thank you Wellington.Scoop for reproducing Christine McCarthy’s posting from the Architectural Centre’s website. There has been a clamour from self-opinionated experts to have the Gordon Wilson Flats demolished, which in no small measure has been excited by the DominionPost with its photographs of a sad, neglected and decayed edifice along with derogatory reporting, a questionable survey and a seemingly agenda-driven opinion piece. One has to suspect that much of the comment has been provided by a reactionary sector who have delighted in using inflammatory comments, but if pressed wouldn’t know where the flats are located, the history and heritage connections of the building, or anything of the advanced social housing design and construction features for the time that were incorporated in the structure. It is understood that even the foundation structure is worthy of consideration in that it has qualities that were not superseded until base isolation was developed well over a decade after the flats were built. It is ironic that the Gordon Wilson Flats have survived the ravages of decades of nature’s onslaughts that have destroyed much newer buildings, despite decades of inadequate maintenance and a weakness that might not have existed had it not been for the type of fixings used in its construction, an uncomplicated problem that might not be too difficult to rectify. As an owner of one of the many thousands of houses produced by Gordon Wilson and the internationally recognised pre-war ‘refugee’ architects and designers such as Ernst Plischke, Fred Newman, Helmut Einhorn, Ian Reynolds and George Porter that he attracted to his team and the influences of eminent international architects he was associated with, I have little doubt that the Environment Court made an appropriate decision. The challenge now is for a developer or public entity to rise to the challenge of giving the building another life so that it might outlive examples of much more recent generations of architecture that are less likely to survive as exemplars of architectural or heritage merit.

  2. Sasha, 17. August 2017, 23:09

    What about ‘unique’? Having grown up in a communist country, I have seen hundreds of similar examples of architecture.

  3. CC, 18. August 2017, 8:52

    Sasha, Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones no doubt meant in terms of the NZ context.
    Incidentally, a building of similar pedigree has been refurbished and still provides social housing in Auckland.