Theodore Dalrymple: A Modern Macchu Picchu

In the second section of the Guardian for 16 January, there is an article about a building in Peru that has ‘just earned… the title of best new building in the world.’ As the awarding body was the Royal Institute of British Architects, it was only to be expected that the building was a complete aesthetic mess, an eyesore: for it is by awarding prizes to eyesores that the RIBA covers up its past and present crimes. And yet the building, entirely of concrete, does not look half as bad as it will look after a few years.

The architects were two Irish women. One of them said of their work, ‘We’re interested in weight. For us, the enjoyment of architecture is the sense of weight being borne down or supported, the feeling of moving with the forces of gravity. It’s a very primal need.’

I have noticed that when an artist or architect begins by saying ‘I’m interested in…’ bilge is sure to follow, as the night the day. What does it mean, that the enjoyment of architecture is the sense of weight being borne down or supported? Is architecture some kind of weightlifting competition?

Does anyone arrive in Venice or see the Taj Mahal for the first time and say, ‘Oh, what a wonderful sense of weight being borne down or supported’? And could anything be a primal need, of all things, that is to say a need that precedes all other needs?

Of course, a great building may also be a marvel of engineering: but the engineering is the servant not the master, and is used either for a utilitarian or aesthetic purpose, or both at the same time. The ironwork of Victorian stations shows this to perfection.

The gushing Guardian architecture correspondent, Oliver Wainwright, says of the two architects that, ‘drawing on Peru’s tradition of terraced landscapes, they have crafted a modern Macchu Picchu.’ From the photograph provided to accompany the article, their building is awkward, angular, without overall unity; its spaces are mean narrow, and oppressive and its proportions a mess. And this is all before he concrete, for the moment pristine, begins to deteriorate. No future tourist will come to marvel at it.

Yet it is unfortunately possible that it is ‘the best new building in the world.’ This, unfortunately, tells us more about the world than about the building. One of the problems is that the pseudo-cerebrations of architects now take precedence over taste, either their own or that of their patrons.

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9 Comments on Theodore Dalrymple: A Modern Macchu Picchu

  1. For truly atrocious architecture, the spirit of the 1970’s must be called upon. Concrete. Unrelenting straight lines. Communist apparat inspired dreariness. Utterly incompetent space allocation, hideous and loathsome in all respects, awful to be in. And the Irish lasses managed to pull it all off! Of course it’s the best building in the world, in this most topsy-turvy of worlds where pretty is considered undesirable and ugly is now the most desirable of all: edgy and cool, whatever those are.

    I spent several years in a similar wretched building:

    Yes, it’s as awful on the inside as the outside seems to hold promise for. A cross between Soviet Realism and prison architecture, it was stuffy inside due to incompetently designed and installed HVAC (an issue that was “fixed” by the HVAC contractor by installing asbestos floor tiles in the hallways (God’s truth). That atrium you see should have been a redeeming feature but instead was the worst of all: single pane glazing allowed in all the heat while dirt, staining and permanent discoloration yielded both sickly light and incredible heat (in the long Texas summer) or Wisconsin-level chill in the winter.

    By mid-afternoon habitues would be somnolent due to doubled CO2 levels, shaken awake every 20 minutes by long freight trains rumbling by, horns blaring, just scant yards from the front door.

    As bad as this building was, a far worse building on campus was– wait for it– the “Environmental Design Building” which housed the “Environmental Design” department. But that’s another story

  2. The poor grauniad hack. What can he be thinking? “A modern Macchu Picchu!” An edifice to make comrade Stalin proud and which wouldn’t look too out of place in a 1960s Elephant and Castle. Not really grauniad territory. Still, for all anyone knows, the Peruvians may have built Macchu Picchu as an out of town council estate so someone might well be on the right track.

  3. The building is ghastly, the space utilization will create a cleaning and maintenance nightmare, the garden nooks will become trash receptacles, or worse yet, the temporary abodes of homeless bums. It appears that the two biddies who designed the damn thing were determined to use the footprint in the least efficient manner. The most beautiful form in nature is the curve or arch, a rainbow or the magnificent dome of St Paul’s or the Capitol. This place is all right angles of brutal concrete beams. Concrete, though excellent as a structural material is awful when left as an unfinished surface, this place will be a dump in a few years.
    TD is right about RIBA: during my time as an electrical consulting engineer I worked on a building, an old folks home, that won a National RIBA prize. The “campus”, as it was termed by the Architect (all corduroys and sandals), was a complex of five pentagon shaped buildings, all identical, that were connected by glassed in walkways and arranged in an overall symmetrical pentagon shape. The unfortunate aged inmates were completely bewildered by this layout and would wander around, completely lost. The Matron of the place assured me that she believed several of her residents had actually died of confusion. But hey, the RIBA thought it was brilliant.

  4. Naturally, when finished, the building will have to be properly dedicated. I suggest an unblemished Guardian staffer, clad in ceremonial garb – a nice suit of Irish tweed ? – be placed atop the structure and be left to freeze on the manner of the original Macchi Picchu human sacrifices.

  5. The ironwork of Leadenhall market in the City of London is a splendid example of the marriage of utility and the aesthetic.