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“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill’s 1943 aphorism is perhaps the most often-quoted exposition of the relationship between people and architecture, writes Kate Allen. Yet that relationship is not always harmonious.
Sometimes people do not behave in the way an architect or city planner intended them to, which sets up a conflict between human desire and physical space that can explain the frustration many people express about some of the world’s most aesthetically praised places and constructions.
Look around you. Examples abound in most urban environments, from misplaced road crossings that cause pedestrians to dash out into the traffic to footworn dirt paths scuffed across pristine grass. Known as “desire lines”, they clearly show where the designer of a public space has failed to account for how people would wish to use it.
Impenetrable concrete colossi such as London’s Barbican Centre are often causes of complaint. But it is not only the 20th century’s Brutalist movement that is to blame. Seattle Central Library is just a decade old and has won awards for its design, but it was also cited as an example of hard-to-navigate structures in an influential 2010 psychology paper about why people get lost in buildings.
The social consequences that a top-down approach to urban design can have is epitomised by Robert Moses — 20th-century New York’s master builder. The expressways he snaked around Manhattan and outlying areas radically reshaped the way people used the space around them, in many cases cutting off African-American communities from nearby amenities.
Churchill himself was not averse to subordinating people’s needs to a wider vision. His 1943 aphorism was made during the debate about replacing the bombed-out House of Commons chamber. He insisted the new space should be constructed on the same scale as the old one, despite being too small for all members of parliament to fit into it. There are said to be 427 spaces for MPs, but the UK sends 650 MPs to Westminster. In 1943 there were 615 MPs. Churchill argued that overcrowding fostered a stronger sense of atmosphere and political theatre — a decision that future MPs have since rued.
Here FT writers have chosen nine buildings across the world that, in their view, feature “inhuman” designs.
Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi, Rome
Rachel Sanderson, Milan correspondent
The Zaha Hadid-designed Maxxi in Rome, the Eternal City’s museum for 21st-century art (an oxymoron if ever there were one), was fraught with difficulty from the start. Designed in 1998, the project was beset by political wrangles and delays as the funding tap turned on and off with every change in the mayoral office.
It finally opened in 2009. Hadid called it “a field”. The building has no rooms and no distinctions between galleries and corridors. The steep walkways which zoom off in several directions have been compared to a racetrack. Another architecture critic likened them to a “series of travelators”, adding that the building would probably look best on its opening day — when it was empty of art.
An exhibition last year of Dolce Vita fashion, Bellissima: Italian fashion from 1945 to 1968, laid bare its limits. The fashion posse — and VIPs including Veronica Lario, the ex-wife of former PM Silvio Berlusconi — mostly remained on the chilly, cavernous ground floor where the drinks were flowing.
When they ventured late in the evening to actually go and see the exhibition they had to climb to the very top floor via one of the racetrack ramps. Seriously steep in parts, high-heeled fashion goers fell into difficulty, with many clinging to their lower-heeled companions and having to be virtually pulled up to the top. Once there, they found an exhibition space so cramped that there were queues to get inside — all the more bizarre given the acres of empty space below. It left the impression that exhibited art was secondary to Hadid’s ambition.
J Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC
Edward Luce, chief US commentator
When the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s monumental slab of a headquarters opened in 1972, it was to a mixed critical reception. Some hailed it as a fine example of the Brutalist school of architecture. Others derided it as a hideous affront to the bustling midtown.
Situated roughly halfway between the White House and Capitol Hill, the building is now almost universally declaimed as the ugliest in the US capital. Designed to make the FBI literally bombproof, the concrete monstrosity is flanked on three sides by a moat that makes it all but unapproachable to pedestrians. Those that venture closer are shielded from falling masonry by netting that encompasses much of the 2.5m sq ft building. In spite of its scale, expense and audacity, the Hoover building is already inadequate to the FBI’s needs. The agency plans to move to a yet to be selected new suburban headquarters that should be able to house all its staff (who now overspill into 21 separate buildings). The federal government is evaluating whether to renovate the building — at a cost of up to $1.1bn — or sell it for redevelopment or demolition. Aesthetes and philistines alike will be praying for the latter.
Nehru Place, New Delhi
Amy Kazmin, South Asia correspondent
Nehru Place, a tatty market that is today known for computers, computer accessories and upholstery fabric, is one of the grimmest, most unappealing shopping areas I have ever had to visit.
Built in the 1970s by the Delhi Development Authority, a government agency, Nehru Place is an example of that Indian architectural style that came to be known as utilitarian modernism, a style rooted in modernism but constrained by both the limited repertoire of building materials available and intense pressure to keep costs down by a cash-strapped government. The result was a construction focused on function and economy, and often of such shoddy quality that it has deteriorated rapidly with time.
The architects for Nehru Place, which was envisioned as a “district centre”, tried to create a civic urban architecture with a large internal plaza. But today the space is filled with downtrodden hawkers and lacks any greenery or water features to help cool the vast expanse in the blazing sun. The broken stairs that lead to the paan-stained, smelly corridors of the buildings make me think about how fast I can complete my business and get away.
European Parliament, Strasbourg
Josh Chaffin, deputy world news editor
There is nothing simple about the European Parliament’s headquarters in Strasbourg. Inaugurated in 1999, the building is a sort of second home to the 751 MEPs — and the legion of trailing staff, lobbyists and journalists — who are obliged by EU rules to decamp from their Brussels base for a session in Strasbourg about once a month.
From the outside, the building resembles the sort of glass-faced sports arena in which a US basketball team might ply its trade. Inside, it is as maddeningly complex as the EU itself, and infamous for thoroughly disorienting even long-time occupants. With its maze of oddly-arranged internal bridges, suspended walkways, spiral staircases and lifts, the Louise Weiss Building — its official title — is uniquely confusing. It is one of those rare buildings in which you can sometimes see where you want to go but cannot work out a way to get there. (Adding to its charms were an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2002 and a partial roof collapse in 2008.)
One consolation is that the building is in Strasbourg, so visitors can console themselves that if they ever find their way out, a great Alsatian meal awaits.
The Great Hall of the People, Beijing
Gabriel Wildau, Shanghai correspondent
The Great Hall of the People, across from Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, is a monument to the Communist party’s political authority. Like the party itself, the building is massive and intimidating. A visitor marvels at its solidity and capacity to impose order on a country where, for 200 years before the party took power in 1949, internal and external forces wreaked chaos. Yet the message is unmistakable: you are small, the party is big, resistance is futile.
From the front, one must stand 200 metres away to view the hall in a single frame. It is a broad rectangle lined with columns, reminiscent of Soviet monoliths. Inside, there are 32 conference rooms, one for each of China’s provinces, and the Great Auditorium, where parliament meets each year. It can seat 10,000 delegates under a ceiling inlaid with a galaxy of lights surrounding a red star at the centre.
The Mogamma, Cairo
Heba Saleh, Cairo correspondent
The Mogamma building is a huge, squat edifice overlooking Tahrir Square in central Cairo that has for decades served as the throbbing heart of Egyptian bureaucracy. Though many associate its modernist style with Nasser’s military-led socialist dictatorship, it was built in the late 1940s before he made his entry on the national scene in 1952. Roughly translated, the word Mogamma means a complex of many parts — a reference to the different administrative departments under its vast roof.
For many Egyptians, a trip to the Mogamma is a realisation of one of their worst nightmares. The impersonal, totalitarian aspect of the 14-storey building is an apt metaphor for the cumbersome and dehumanising bureaucracy within it. Thousands of people enter through its doors every day and shuffle in queues from counter to counter, to get passports, renew documents and carry out other necessary formalities. Before the 2011 revolution, there had been discussions about turning the building into a hotel, but such talk now appears to have died down.
The National Palace of Culture, Sofia
Milena Hristova, FT writer
The grandiose National Palace of Culture, a symbol of Bulgaria’s communist regime in its heyday, is now the most popular venue for events in the capital, Sofia.
The nuclear reactor-like building may not appeal to everybody’s taste, but it is the only place where you can see all the layers of modern-day Bulgaria in a couple of hours — and have fun at the same time.
The project — initiated in the 1970s by Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov — today attracts big-name music acts and holds film screenings and conferences.
However, exploring the 123,000 sq metre concrete mammoth can be a somewhat challenging task.
Its core is a cross between a cave and a maze of seemingly endless marble-covered staircases, escalators, terraces, and halls — while a majestic foyer extends from the top to the bottom of the building.
Guiding signs deck the walls, but it can take some serious brainpower to decipher them. Choose the wrong one and you end up staring round dimly lit, relentlessly similar corridors decorated with propaganda murals.
The confusion extends outside the palace, where one is faced with uneven pavements and perennial repair works. It is a challenge most Sofianites have simply resigned themselves to.
Shinjuku Station, Tokyo
Robin Harding, Tokyo bureau chief
Tokyo is the megacity that works, its skyscrapers blending almost imperceptibly into suburbia, but on this most human metropolis a carbuncle remains. It is the world’s busiest transport hub. It is an experience akin to being a drugged-up rat in a laboratory maze. It is Shinjuku Station.
People say Shinjuku Station, but there are actually five, each run by five railway companies, who all want to sell you stuff. Their spaces grow on top of each other, around each other and even into each other like hypertrophic fungi on a plate of architectural agar jelly.
Nor does the station meld with the outside world. To the south stands a wall of offices and department stores; to the west a confusing approach to city hall via a bus terminus. To the east is Tokyo’s biggest red-light district, from where the police direct tourists, wide-eyed and lost, to the Marunouchi Line.
The Barbican, London
Kate Allen, political correspondent
Any Londoner who has walked around the northern fringes of the Square Mile will most probably be able to cite one glaring example of an architect’s vision colliding with pedestrians’ instincts: the Grade II-listed Barbican complex.
Lauded by critics as one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture, the concrete citadel raises conflicting emotions among the millions of pedestrians who encounter it each year.
Its architects had a utopian vision to transform a bombed-out area north of the City, and the estate officially opened in 1969. The Queen later described it as “one of the modern wonders of the world” because of its scale and ambition. But its design requires visitors to approach the buildings along raised walkways, accessed from street level by poorly signposted staircases that appear to lead nowhere. Miss one of these and you often end up clumping along an underpass in half-darkness, next to a roaring urban motorway, searching in vain for an access point.
Once inside, exiting the rabbit-warren is a similar challenge. It is no coincidence that architecture buffs’ photographs always show the magnificent central waterfall and lake: penetrating this hard-to-find spot is the gold standard of urban exploration.
Photographs: Max Rossi/Corbis; Mark Summerfield/Alamy; Giovanni Mereghetti/Alamy; MARKA/Alamy; Shaun Higson/China/Alamy; Barry Iverson Collection/Alamy; Martin Garnham /Alamy; EDU Vision/Alamy; Getty Images