UGLINESS, no less than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Take, for instance, Ecce Homo by Elias Garcia Martinez, which has ornamented the Sanctuary of Mercy Church near Zaragoza since the 1930s. In 2012, a pious parishioner decided to restore the painting, upset that it had become ugly through neglect. Under her brush, it was so horribly disfigured that it was soon rechristened “Ecce Mono”, “Behold the monkey”. But it became the subject of worldwide interest. The repainted icon was seen by a critic as “one woman’s vision of her saviour, uncompromised by schooling”. It is now the subject of some devotion and an attraction to visitors: many drawn by its ugliness; others by the simple, perhaps even beautiful, faith that led to its repainting.
Ugliness and Judgment is not about paintings, and it is not just about ugliness. It is a sustained meditation on moments in British architectural history when writers, architects, and a wider public debated the nature of building. Starting in the 18th century, with the improvement and expansion of Bath, and finishing in the 21st with Prince Charles’s interventions in the planning process, it is a bold and ambitious attempt to rethink how we talk and think about architecture now.
Drawing on critical theory, on writers such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, it wears its learning far from lightly. The word “ugliness” itself is often absent from the debates discussed here. Professor Timothy Hyde’s subjects — whether the Georgian architect John Soane or the 20th-century sculptor Henry Moore — tend to talk about dullness or mediocrity more than outright ugliness.
This is hardly surprising. Google Ngram, which searches books to calculate word usage, suggests that “ugliness” has been in decline since the 1920s. The phrase “ugly building” has never really recovered from a high point in the 1870s. This is not because the number of ugly buildings has similarly declined.
The great achievement of this book is to show that, even if the language and opinions about taste change, debates about architecture have always had some common features. They are never just about buildings. Ugliness, Hyde shows, is not some abstract or objective quality; instead, it is a judgement about propriety, fitness, class, the law. This makes architectural criticism difficult. It also makes it more interesting.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Ugliness and Judgment: On architecture in the public eye
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