Review of Ugliness and Judgment On Architecture in the Public Eye by Timothy Hyde
CAMBRIDGE -- In 1984, when the British government was planning to build a flashy modernist addition to the National Gallery in London, Prince Charles offered a dissenting view. The proposed extension, he said, resembled “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” A public controversy ensued, and eventually a more subtle addition was built.
There is more to the story, however. Prince Charles’ public interventions into architecture fell into a legal grey area. Was he improperly trying use the influence of the British monarchy — now meant to be nonpolitical — to affect government policy?
“It’s not quite clear whether Prince Charles was speaking as a private citizen or as a future monarch,” says Timothy Hyde, the Clarence H. Blackall Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture. He adds: “Because of his architectural pronouncements, a series of constitutional debates has emerged about how such opinions should be regulated, or if they should be regulated at all.”
Indeed, Prince Charles’ public tussles over architecture have led to legal battles. In 2015, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that 27 advocacy memos Prince Charles had written to various officials — on architecture, the environment, and other subjects — could not be kept private, meaning the public could scrutinize his activities. And more recently, Prince Charles has vowed not to make similar policy interventions should he become king.
So for Prince Charles, debates over architecture have spilled into questions of political power. But as Hyde explores in a new book, “Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye,”1 published by Princeton University Press, this is hardly unique. In Britain alone, Hyde notes, controversies specifically over the “ugliness” of buildings have shaped matters from libel law to environmental policy.
- 1. A novel interpretation of architecture, ugliness, and the social consequences of aesthetic judgment
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.
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. Twitter @hyde_timothy