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The world is full of terrible architecture. Which buildings would the FT’s global network of correspondents demolish if they were given a wrecking ball?
John Paul Rathbone
Latin America editor
The Soviets came to Cuba, almost precipitated a third world war, and then pulled the plug on the island 30 years later when the USSR collapsed. It is remarkable how little they left behind compared with the Spanish, for example, who bequeathed a culture and one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Havana.
One glaring exception is the Russian embassy in Havana’s leafy Miramar district, a brutal concrete mass, finished in 1987 when Moscow was still the only foreign show in town. Designed by Aleksandr Rochegov (“People’s Architect of the USSR, 1991”), this constructivist pile is so unremittingly ugly and out of place that it has been compared to a syringe. (“All the better to inject Communism,” as the sad joke once went.) It is almost cruel to argue for the demolition of any building in Cuba, given so many are falling down.
Yet wouldn’t it be great if its destruction also meant a reversal of that syringe, so magically sucking the poison out.
Mumbai bureau chief
Even in a country known for elaborate Maharajas’ palaces, no building inspires as much controversy as Antilia, the Mumbai home of India’s richest man, the billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani. India’s media often reports that the 27-storey building cost $1bn, even though no reliable construction cost details have been provided. In a city where land is notably scarce, Antilia also attracted opprobrium when its plot was bought from a charity that ran orphanages in the city. Yet it seems to be the design itself that most irks observers, with the building’s unusual cantilevered façade towering above a city, half of whose residents are said to live in slums.
At more than 50 metres tall, the gleaming 10,000-seat replica of the Temple of Solomon, complete with a helipad, is by far São Paulo’s slickest building – and possibly its most hated.
The $300m stone complex that opened in August this year is the work of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a fast-growing evangelical empire founded by the media magnate Edir Macedo, Brazil’s richest religious leader, who was briefly jailed in 1992 over accusations of fraud but was subsequently cleared.
For Brazil’s shrinking Catholic community, the gold-encrusted temple surrounded by olive trees is an abomination – not least because it is almost twice as tall as Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. Jewish groups have also voiced their disapproval.
However, it is perhaps most objectionable simply because of its lavish display of wealth in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Tokyo is littered with bubble-era silliness. Take the headquarters of Asahi Breweries, completed in 1989. The amber-coloured building resembles a frothing pitcher of beer while the shorter building next to it is a cup of ale, topped with Philippe Starck’s “Flamme d’Or” – or as the locals instantly named it, the “golden turd”. In that context, there is no excuse at all for the sloppy Shibuya Hikarie tower, which glowers over the Tokyo shopping district famous for its scramble intersection. Completed in 2012, it broke an almost uninterrupted run of sleek and beautiful buildings in the city, such as the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower (2003) and La Tour Shinjuku Grand (2011). From certain angles, it looks like a half-arsed game of Tetris, or a filing cabinet shaken loose by a quake. Much of the station area is supposed to be flattened and rebuilt for the 2020 Olympics. It is a pity the Hikarie can’t go with it.
In southeast England the problem is the lack of construction of new, affordable housing, not the demolition of existing buildings. In fact, most ugly buildings can be adapted to create useful, even attractive new accommodation. Go beyond the edge of any major city and the endless closes and cul-de-sacs, the blandscape of brick boxes accessible only by car, provided with no infrastructure except the ubiquitous big-box retailers, these depress me no end. How could we demolish them all? Where would the displaced live? And what if it turns out that, actually, this really is how people want to live? There is always an implied snobbery in these exercises which I find problematic. Having said that, I’ll shoot down my own argument and say that the Walkie-Talkie, at 20 Fenchurch Street, which pokes its big head into every view of London and pops up behind Tower Bridge like a grinning idiot photobombing the city, should never have been given planning permission.
US national editor
In the 1954 motion picture It Should Happen to You, Judy Holliday plays an aspiring model who tries to make a splash in New York by getting her name on a billboard overlooking Columbus Circle. Such a thing could never happen today because Columbus Circle is no longer the centre of action in that part of town. It has been overwhelmed by an architectural nightmare – the Time Warner Center. Soaring 80 storeys above the circle, the twin towers of the mixed-use property give New Yorkers the opportunity to experience all the excitement of a suburban shopping mall. It shouldn’t have happened to us, but it did, and that leaves New Yorkers with only the old movies on cable TV to remind us of the way we were.
East Africa correspondent
Africa has nowhere near enough buildings to start tearing them down. Ones tied to colonial relics or oppressive regimes in Eritrea and Ethiopia are records of north meets south and worth preserving. Even in Khartoum, whose hubristic skyline testifies to an oil-glut economy gone bust, it would be churlish to pull down so wildly over-the-top a building as the hotel shaped like a hand grenade, built by fallen Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi. The same cannot be said of the ominously blank walls of Sudan’s national security building, and the gate for families to inquire after disappeared or tortured loved ones. One outgoing British diplomat quipped that – in line with a maritime ministry shaped like a boat and an aviation ministry like a plane – the national security building may as well be modelled after electrodes. As Sudan continues a war against its people on three fronts, this is a building worth tearing down.
South Asia bureau chief
For visitors to India, New Delhi’s “markets” conjure up images of ochre and vermilion, of spices and curious vegetables, of piles of carpets and handmade fabrics. The most famous of these is surely Khan Market – but it is a sore disappointment, a ramshackle collection of modern two- and three-storey shophouses in brick and concrete, lacking both old-world charm and modern space and convenience. It is not unusual to see a dead rat squashed into the chaos that passes for pavement outside the overpriced shops selling groceries, gewgaws and mobile phones. It is probably superfluous to demand the market’s demolition, since interminable redesigns and reconstruction projects have made parts of it vulnerable to falling down without further assistance – as happened to two floors of a building that collapsed just over a year ago.
The Centre Georges Pompidou was a clever piece of architecture when it opened in Paris in 1977; its internal mechanisms, including lifts and coloured pipes, splashed on the outside rather than within, helped it become known as a revolutionary building. Yet the tangle of blues, reds and greens, combined with the web of cold steel, makes it look at once clinical like an oil refinery and garish like a carousel. And time has only made it uglier. Difficult to clean, beset by thousands of joints and nooks and crannies, it is decaying and shabby. Fifteen years since its last major refurbishment, the decorated pipes are once again filthy.
Jakarta has no shortage of tycoon-built mansions with hideous neo-Palladian façades and skyscrapers designed as monuments to arrogance rather than style. Only one building in the Indonesian capital combines both flaws. Nestled between office towers on Jakarta’s main business street, the 34-storey Da Vinci Penthouse shares a name with the master Italian painter and architect but little else. Encased in more columns and statues than a Roman temple, the lower floors are a showroom for the purveyor of tacky, expensive neoclassical furniture that has designed the interiors of the multimillion dollar apartments. Above that rises a charmless grey tower. As garish on the inside as it is on the outside, this building surely deserves its self-awarded title of “The Landmark of Indonesia”. Just the wrong sort of landmark.
Middle East and north Africa correspondent
If there is one building that stands out among the varied, chaotic jumble of styles and epochs that characterise modern-day Cairo – and one that symbolises all that has gone wrong with the city – it is the huge, late-modernist Mogamma building that looms over Tahrir Square. It symbolises the downturns and despair of the military-led socialism that Egypt is still attempting to leave behind. Many Egyptians and foreigners have ambled through its hallways, struggling against its 18,000 surly employees to secure applications for passports or visa extensions. “It’s a monster. It’s a beast,” says Karim el-Hayawan, a Cairo interior designer and architect. “But visually it only reflects how monstrous it is inside.”
Southern Africa bureau chief
It is doubtful that any visitor to Johannesburg could have missed the Ponte City, a huge, hollowed out pillar that stands as a monument to the ugly greyness of a slab of concrete. At 173 metres tall, the 54-storey cylindrical, residential tower soars high into the sky dwarfing all around it. Anyone planning a high-rise prison should consider the Ponte for inspiration. It is difficult to believe that when it first opened its doors in 1975 it was considered the swanky residence of choice for wealthy white South Africans wanting to live in the heart of downtown Johannesburg. Today, it is a weather-beaten totem of apartheid-era architecture in a run-down inner city area. Yet for all its grey ugliness – or perhaps because of it – Ponte has become an iconic symbol of the downtown and one that enjoys the affection of many Joburgers.
The Trafford Centre in Manchester, the UK’s second-largest shopping centre, is a testament to triviality both in form and function. Its design is a rococo pastiche, a multicoloured marble and glass temple to consumerism. Its construction in the late 1990s was an early step in the arrival of American out-of-town mall culture on British shores. Built on the site of that industrial marvel, the Manchester Ship Canal, the centre symbolises Britain’s shift from a global industrial leader to a country with diminishing influence and an economy dependent on high levels of personal debt and frivolous spending. It attracts more than 35m visitors a year, so it is not lacking in friends, but I would demolish it and build something more socially useful in its place – a factory, perhaps.
Chief Germany correspondent
The International Congress Centre, built in 1979 in West Berlin, always was an expensive white elephant. Its crablike structure invites comparison with a spaceship and Berliners often call it “the UFO”. Before German reunification it had some purpose in trying to draw visitors to the outpost of west Berlin, surrounded as it was by Communist East Germany. Today it is closed as a cash-strapped city council debates what to do with it. At 320 metres long, 80 metres wide and 40 metres high it is far too large to ignore. The city has set aside about €200m for renovation and modernisation. One option is to give the hulking building a new lease of life as a conference centre. Another is to turn it into a shopping mall. However, tearing the place down altogether would be monstrously expensive, as the ICC is stuffed with asbestos.
The CCTV headquarters, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, is known informally as the “Kuzi”, or “big trousers”, for its two legged shape, and is perhaps the best known of the architectural landmarks in Beijing. Yet China’s president, Xi Jinping, has said he has had enough of the daring designs that dominate the Chinese capital’s skyline and recently made an example of the CCTV building. Architecture, he said, in a rare explanation for a Chinese leader, should serve the people. He called for morally inspiring art that should “be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles”.
Photographs: Getty Images; Bloomberg; Nacho Doce/Reuters; Michael Anderson; Boris Horvat/Getty Images; AFP; Barry Iverson Collection/Alamy